A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(c) of 2 (Watt)

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; part 2a here and part 2b 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. 

John A. Watt’s Narrative

Here, we shall rely heavily on John Watt’s work, well past the point of poaching. I rely, here, on the chronology I laid out in part one of two in this series.

In his Ratcliffe period, Ullmann worked on two books, The Medieval Idea of Law as Represented by Lucas da Penna (hereafter simply The Medieval Idea of Law) and also did work on The Origins of the Great Schism. Only the first of these was completed in this period, The Medieval Idea of Law. John Watt wrote that one of the main themes of The Medieval Idea of Law was “its analysis of the idea of justice, a concept imbued with the spirit of Christianity, transformed into a workable social [487] reality in the law. This emphasis on the harmony of Christian and legal values and its concomitant disposition to present medieval Christianity primarily as a juridical system became characteristic of the Ullmann approach.”  [John Watt, Walter Ullmann, 1910-1983, 486-487] This is vague enough, similar to Ullmann’s assertions that Medieval law is the Bible turned into legislation, but it was here that Ullmann first stated his ascending/descending theme, in “an analysis of medieval theories of the origin of political authority”. “Ullmann distinguished a view of rulership and authority established by divine mandate from one which saw rulership and authority deriving from consent of the people. These views, Ullmann came to label respectively the ‘descending’ and ‘ascending’ themes of governmental authority, and the study of the making of the political logics each view represented, and the study of their conflict in a dialectic that extended from the middle ages into the early modern period, were to be vital elements in his future work.” [Watt, Walter Ullmann, 487] Given the Aristotelian principle that a society cannot hang together without an idea of justice, and that these two models are exclusive to one another, we should expect, were they to be faithfully descriptive to the history they represent, that the shift from Medieval to Modern would be the shift from the Ullmannian “descending” model to the “ascending” one.

In the other work that we mentioned he began during the Ratcliffe period, The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth Century Ecclesiastical History, Ullmann suggested that the scandal of the dual headship of the Church over both ecclesiastical and secular affairs raised fundamental constitutional problems for the Church, and “[t]he search for their solutions initiated a strong movement away from the traditional concept of papal monarchy towards other forms of government”, whether oligarchic or conciliar. “The monarchic, or traditional view of papal headship, and the conciliar models of government were seen as being in conflict.” [Watt, 488] Ullmann didn’t have language for it yet, but this began his preoccupation with

a dialectic between two  ways of looking at the origin of political authority.

One was the descending theme of government where authority, conferred by God on a ruler seen as his image on earth, was located in ‘one monarchic individual who distributed it downward’.

The other was the ascending theme, with authority located in the ‘totality of the people’.

The Great Schism saw the clash in its purely ecclesiastical context. But its significance was not confined to that context: secular governments were to have their own particular experience of it. In fact, Ullmann was to argue, the supersession of the one by the other, with the victory of the ‘ascending’ theory, was the story of the emergence of Western constitutionalism.

For the ‘descending’ theme was the political model of absolutism, with the ruler unaccountable to human authority. The ‘ascending’ theme was that of the ruler responsible to the people, who retained the power to modify the ruler’s authority and to remove him from office if need be.

The genesis of these different modes, their clash, and the consequences for European political thinking were to be the substance of Ullmann’s life-work. [Watt, 489 — formatting mine]

The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages: A Study in the Ideological Relations of Clerical to Lay Power appeared over ten years after these works, and seeks to locate the origins of the descending view. As John Watt summarizes, it

examined [the] evolution [of “papal world monarchy” or “hierocratic ideology”, namely, “the supremacy of the sacerdotal over the lay power”] from its first manifestations in the letters of Pope Leo I in mid-fifth century to its ‘final exposition’ in mid-twelfth century.” “The essence of the interpretation can be summarized fairly briefly.

The logic began with the New Testament: ‘The papal-hierocratic scheme is a gigantic attempt to translate scripture and quite especially Pauline doctrine into terms of government.’ The reference was first to that title-deed of papal authority, the Petrine commission which gave principatus and therefore sole headship of the Church, to the pope as successor of St. Peter. His role was to govern. The church he ruled was no mere ‘pneumatic, sacramental and spiritual body’ but, ‘a corporate body under law and government, an organic, concrete and earthly society’. It had been especially St. Paul who had emphasized the organic [493] unity of this body (Eph. 5:23-24; Rom. 12:5), the diversities of functions within it (1 Cor. 12) and particularly diversity of office (Rom. 12:4). To each part of the organic whole is assigned its appropriate function (‘the principle of functional order within society’).

What determined the particular function was the nature of the body itself. Being a Christian society, its telos or end is salvation. The temporal-material in such a society is subordinated to the sacerdotal-spiritual (‘the teleological conception’). Hence the direction of that society can only be in the hands of those properly qualified to lead: those ordained for salvific leadership, the priests. The king’s function then is simply to help these leaders to fulfil their role. It is merely auxiliary (‘the function of the prince teleologically conceived: an auxiliary organ’).  [Watt, 492-493]

There are certainly a number of transitions that occur between the fourth and sixth centuries in terms of the rise and development of Christendom, but it is hard for this writer to look at this and not see a critique of ultramontanism in the wake of Vatican I, and something of a prelude to Vatican II. Perhaps I am seeing things that aren’t there. At any rate, Watt continues with regard to The Growth of Papal Government, which, he says,

analysed a dialectic: the confrontation between sacerdotium and imperium (in both its Eastern and Western forms), between hierocratic and anti-hierocratic thought. Ullmann’s main emphasis had been on the sacerdotium, but ‘the defence of the lay thesis’ was an essential part of the argument. Its thrust had been to demonstrate how difficult it was to present a case for the autonomy of the civil power in face of the God-given authority of the papal monarch which had successfully cast it for the role of ministerial assistant. [Watt, 494]

This sets the stage for a kind of rebellion, for when the full corpus of Aristotle’s writings were reintroduced to the Latin West in the high middle ages, it was

to provide ‘what anti-hierocratic thinkers had been groping for so long to find’. [Aristotle’s] works revealed […] an essentially natural origin of society, a societas humana fundamentally different from the societas christiana. It was different because it portrayed a society, not originating in God above, but in human nature below: ‘Into the one societas man comes through the working of the social instinct; into the other societas he comes through the sacramental act of baptism.’ The one descends from God, the other ascends from the people. [Watt, 494]

This was the first signal of the ascending-descending thesis, which was to receive its full and proper treatment in Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages, “which is perhaps Ullmann’s most distinctive contribution to the history of medieval political thinking”, and “is Ullmann’s most ambitious book.” This text, I should state, was my first introduction to Ullmann after Ozment — though I’d forgotten what I’d read in Ozment by the time I made my way to Principles. Watt frames Principles as seeing “the history of Europe in terms of a ‘competitive rivalry’ between these two conceptions.”

The ascending, or populist, theory, known to republican Rome, but also characteristic of the early Germanic tribes, seed-beds of the European monarchies, was to be all but obliterated by the descending, or theocratic, theory, which ‘ecclesiasticized’ monarchy and made it subject to the sacerdotium. But it lived on, if inconspicuously and ineffectively, to be revivified when the times were propitious, by the neo-Aristotelians. [Watt, 495]

Part One of Principles concerns the translation of biblical (specifically Pauline) principles “into terms of law and government […] the equation of political society with the corpus Christi“.  ” ‘Petrinology’ was the term now coined to describe the sum total of the juristic and political logic based on biblical foundations.” [Watt, 495]

Part Two of Principles concerns monarchy, made difficult because “Medieval men did not overtly theorize very much about the most important political institution of their era.” Ullmann attempted to recover this by looking at ritual texts, edicts, &c. — but especially legal writings.

Ullmann found monarchy to be a Zwitterding, an office composed of two elements, one, theocratic and ‘descending’, the other, feudal, relating readily to the ‘ascending’ theme. The two aspects were formally irreconcilable […] A fundamental contradiction, then, lay in the foundations of monarchy. […] [Following the logic of one element] led to revolution. […] [Following t]he other led to constitutional monarchy, as evidenced by England, where Magna Carta and the common law tradition demonstrated the superior value of the ascending theme. [Watt, 496]

Part Three of Principles concerned the “experience of popular associations at many levels of society and in many different contexts, focused this experience in political doctrine.” “The sovereignty of the people was the issue. […] Roman law combined with the model of the Italian city-state had produced a fully-fledged ‘ascending’ political logic.” [Watt, 496]

A lengthy analysis of Aristotle and of the neo-Aristotelians […] demonstrated the elaboration of the first European theory of the state, a natural entity distinct from the supra-natural entity, the Church. But it was with Marsilius of Padua that a complete account of the people as sovereign legislator was produced. In his Defensor Pacis was felicitously combined the twin influences of Aristotelian political philosophy and the Italian city-state construct. […] Bartolus and Rome, Marsilius and Greece, conditioned by Italian political experience, had produced a ‘populism’. This concept of the primacy of the community, the triumph of the ‘ascending theme’, was the political counterpart of other changes which in sum constituted the Renaissance: naturalism in art and literature, ‘the rediscovery of man’, humanism. [Watt, 497]

The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages was “structured along very similar lines to Principles, and was “a variant of the story of the supersession of the theocratic-descending view of government by the populist-ascending view, with feudalism acting as the bridge between the two. Whereas in Principles the accent was on the concept of governmental office and its jurisdiction, Individual and Society switches the spotlight to the governed.” [Watt, 499]

the book is no mere rehash.

The change plotted is from the subditus (mere subject, required only to do as he is told) to civis (responsible, participating citizen), from a society where government gave the law to a subject population, not itself considered equipped or qualified to participate in government to a society where the free individual, having rights and duties, was encouraged to take part. Humanitas, [500] natural man, ‘the full-grown citizen’ had been freed from the smothering force of traditional (pre-thirteenth century) paternalistic, theocratic kingship. The actualities of medieval life –the self-organization of the village community, the constitutions of towns and especially, the reciprocity of individual obligations in feudalism– were in contradiction with the prevailing theory of man in society. [Watt, 499-500]

When writing The Carolingian Renaissance and the Idea of Kingship Ullmann “could not accept that Charlemagne’s deep personal commitment to the movement was born of a culture for culture’s sake motivation.”

He argued that Charlemagne had something far more ambitious and far reaching in mind: nothing less than ‘the transformation of contemporary society in accordance with doctrinal and dogmatic notions of Christianity, as it was seen in patristic lore’. The Frankish bishops and scholars resuscitated the Christian past in accordance with a definite programme: the rebirth of the individual (through the regenerative effect of baptism which conferred membership of the society) and a renovatio collectively to make of Frankish society a populus christianus or imperium christianum. Thereby Europa became conceptually meaningful, no longer a mere territorial notion but endowed with a new ideological identity. Romanitas and Christianitas were its title deeds. This ideology, however, [502] proved to be a kind of Christianity which was unacceptable in Byzantium. The rift between Old and New Rome, between Latin West and Greek East, was a Carolingian bequest. [Watt, 501-502]

Watt continues with a summary of what Ullmann sees as a key development here:

With this new view of society went a new view of kingship characterized by the replacement of an ‘ascending’ notion of government which saw kingship authenticated by blood descent or selection by the ‘people’ by a ‘descending’ notion which saw it as authenticated by God himself. ‘King by the grace of God’ was the governmental dictum which best characterized the new view. [Watt, 502]

Ullmann’s 1977 book The Medieval Foundations of Renaissance Humanism “is essentially complementary to Carolingian Renaissance.”

The later middle ages were to put into reverse what had been the dominant ideology of the early middle ages. Whereas the Carolingian Renaissance had obliterated the natural and populist roots of, and elements in, Germanic [504] kingship, and substituted for it a theocratic and clericalist view of government and society, so the later Renaissance restored a populist and secular view. The Carolingian period had seen the transformation of the Frankish realms into a Christian society and the fashioning of political theory to match. The later Renaissance period saw the emergence of the laity as a force in public affairs and the promotion of a theory of a secularized society and government, fashioning an ideology of which the long-term result was ‘the modern democratic state in its pluralist configuration’. [Watt, 503-504]

Watt goes on

The two books [Carolingian Renaissance and Medieval Foundations] shared a basic argument. Just as Ullmann had postulated that the Carolingian Renaissance had initially been politically motivated before it became a literary and artistic movement, so with the later Renaissance. It was an essentially political quest, in both Renaissances, which had motivated and propelled the search of ancient literatures; in the one case, of the Bible and the Fathers, for the ‘right’ law and exemplars of theocratic government, in the other, of Roman law, the classic Roman authors (Cicero in particular) and Aristotle for the state, the concept of the citizen, civic virtue. But if the original point of reference was wholly political, it did not remain so. [Watt, 504]

Ullmann’s take on secularization is summarized by Watt

The main preoccupation of the book [Medieval Foundations], however, remained with the ‘secularization’ of politics, its break from theocracy, with the ‘rebirth or rehabilitation of man as an autonomous citizen’. State, society, politics were natural phenomena. The baptismal, or religious, qualification for membership of society was ‘relegated to the background and neutralized if not wholly eliminated’. Man had been ‘rehabilitated in his earthly environs’. Natural man, especially qua citizen, had been reborn. [Watt, 504]

In his final book, Gelasius I (I don’t recall whether this was ever translated into English), Watt says that Ullmann argues that

At the heart of the development was the interaction of the New Testament Petrine texts concerning the mission conferred on peter with a juridical understanding of the papal function formulated in the language of Roman law and a juridicizing Latin translation of the Bible. [Watt, 506]

Watt says that Gelasius I is framed by “three main themes”.

The first traces the emergence and increasing precision of formulation of a doctrine of papal authority with an organic notion of the Church as the congregation or corporation of all Christians as its corollary. […] The second main theme analyses how that doctrine was formulated as a response to the challenge of the imperial government at Constantinople. […] The confrontation between popes and emperors also brought about that which formed the third of the main themes: that of the role of the emperor in Christian society and, by extension, of any lay power. He was within the Church, not above it, its son, not its master. [Ullmann saw the Gelasian distinction between the auctoritas of the papacy and the potestas of the emperor as one between the pope as “supreme directive voice and of potestas merely its subject executive.”] […] With these three main themes, Ullmann saw fashioned, in the fifth century, a grand design for the structure of government in the Christian world, and for the proper distribution of authority within it, in both ecclesiastical and civil terms. It comes to fruition in the work of Gelasius, first as draftsman to Felix III and then, short though it was, in his own pontificate. The medieval papacy was born in the fifth century. [Watt, 506-507]

That is Ullmann’s development of thought by one of his own students, John Watt.


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!

2 thoughts on “A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(c) of 2 (Watt)

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

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

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