A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(e) of 2 (Oakley)

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, part 2b here, part 2c here, and part 2d 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. 

 Francis Oakley — the Undertaker?

The fall of Ullmann’s star seems to have been marked –or brought about– by the publication of Francis Oakley’s “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited: Walter Ullmann’s Vision of Medieval Politics” (Past & Present, Volume 60, Issue 1, 1 August 1973, pp. 3–48).

Oakley says that Ullmann is a powerful figure, whose synthesis of medieval political and legal thought needs to be dealt with by anyone interested in the field. The danger is that, with his level of fame, everyone will refer to him and no one will read him.

The very necessity of essaying such an appraisal itself stands as a tribute to the magnitude of his scholarly achievement. [4]

Oakley cites a number of problems with Ullmann, and places in which he claims that Ullmann fails to treat a thinker (e.g., Ockham & Augustine) or trend with proper attention. He sees such efforts of cataloging as “tedious”, “perhaps […] profitless” and “unfair”. [6]

What Oakley proposes is to look at Ullmann’s “general interpretive structure”, the “conceptual framework” that is behind what Ullmann finds –or fails to see– in the medieval legal and political texts. Oakley’s purpose is to address the “adequacy” of this framework. [6]

Ullmann, Oakley asserts, is not so much interested in the purpose or teleology of law or political institutions in the middle ages as he is in the source or efficient cause of political authority (Oakley finds this anachronistic).

What is the framework that Ullmann sees medieval history through, what is the main “plot” of medieval legal and political history?

medieval political thinking was in his view dominated by two competing “conceptions of government and law”, conceptions which, being “diametrically opposed” to one another, were mutually exclusive. These he refers to as the “ascending” and “descending” themes or theses. According to the former of these, which he designates also as the “populist” conception, “governmental authority and law-creating competence” are attributed to the people or community and ascend to the top of the political structure “from the broad base in the shape of a pyramid”. With this theme are associated consent, representation, and the notion of the individual as citizen, as participant in public government, occupying within society a status characterized by autonomy and independence, endowed, therefore, with a battery of “inalienable rights” proof even against the encroachments of the powers that be. According to the latter thesis, on the other hand, all power is located ultimately in God, who, by means of an earthly vicegerent himself endowed to this end with a plenitude of power, distributes it downwards via a hierarchy of officials “again in the shape of a pyramid”. In the context of this theme, faith is substituted for consent, the notion of office delivered from above replaces that of representation, and instead of the autonomous, right-bearing individual, we encounter the faithful Christian, recipient of the favours of an absolutist government, subject rather than citizen. [7-8]

Oakley goes on to note that Ullmann, having set this up as the main schema, sides with the “ascending theme”, which he takes to be “more fundamental”:

prevalent, it would seem, both over longer stretches of time and over broader expanses of space, rooted more deeply in the soil of mundane human existence, attached more firmly to the very bedrock of the human psyche. [8]

Oakley notes that Ullmann portrays the descending theme as something of an alien imposition, “a characteristic product of the clerical mind”. [9]

Granting Ullmann’s take on the medieval period for the moment, how did something so allegedly unnatural impose itself on pagan Rome and pagan Europe & Christian Roman-Byzantium for so long? Ullmann’s answer: through “Christianity in general and by certain New Testament motifs in particular”. The papacy introduced this first, and then the Frankish kings, who lacked the direct link to God that the papacy was understood to have in its title deed, attempted to acquire it as well, by replacing “conquest and election” [10] by “ecclesiastical unction and coronation” as legitimating means.

“Such, then, is the general conceptual framework upon which Ullmann constructs his interpretation of medieval political thinking.” [10] “[I]ts value as an explanatory tool” to help bring differences between the classical, medieval and modern worlds is clear. As he will note later, however, it is not the key, and is often misleading.

Ullmann adds a “sub-plot” to his story. It consists in the contrast between feudal and theocratic “forms of monarchy”; Oakley is concerned that Ullmann was here pushing past the limits of the heuristic & pedagogical value that his general schema offered. Ullmann’s treatment of Henry of Bracton is taken as paradigmatic, so it is by looking at Ullmann’s take on Bracton

that we begin our assessment of the degree to which [Ullmann’s] conceptual apparatus succeeds in illuminating the intricacies of medieval political thinking. [11]


Bracton’s descending view was influenced by feudalism, says Ullmann, to a degree that hasn’t been noticed by scholarship. That is why both “constitutionalism” & “absolutism” are found in Bracton. The “theocratic function” accounts for the king as “true sovereign” and the “feudal function” accounts for why the king “is subject to the law” and why he can’t “make or change the law without the assent of his barons.” [11] This makes the king an “amphibious” creature, switching between the two themes.

Oakley cites seven ways in which Ullmann’s interpretation of Bracton is odd. First, Ullmann’s approach here is demanded by his schema, and the conclusion of his interpretation makes him an outlier in Bracton scholarship. [12] His insistence on feudal elements is “forceful” and “puzzling”. Second, Ullmann translates and interprets one key Bracton text about the king’s power only being of God when he works justice (a teleological concern) as being rather about the source of the king’s power. Third, the king being “under the law” means things other than what Ullmann takes the text to mean, and does not suggest what Ullmann wants to get out of it. It is about “the king’s exercise of his executive and judicial power”. [13] Fourth, Bracton’s subordination to the law is not also his subjection to “the coercive power of a superior”, as Ullmann suggests. Fifth, Ullmann wants to use some key words in ways they can’t be used with historical responsibility (gubernaculum or governance for theocratic functions and jurisdictio or jurisdiction for feudal functions in which the king is law-bound). These are not Bracton’s terms, but come from another scholar, Charles Howard McIlwain, and they don’t fit Bracton. Sixth, Ullmann uses this McIlwainian distinction to do work very different from what McIlwain wanted it for. McIlwain didn’t think that medieval kings could make law; Ullmann does, in the king’s theocratic function. Seventh, McIlwain thinks that the Bractonian distinction between jurisdictio and gubernaculum is typical of all medieval political thought and “at the very heart of medieval constitutionalism”; Ullmann sees it as particularly feudal and English and populist. Ullmann wants to use this to distinguish English-style feudally-informed monarchy from theocratic-style French monarchy, and that won’t work; homey don’t play that.

Oakley stresses that Ullmann interprets the material this way because of “the rôle [Ullmann] has already assigned to feudalism” [15], and further stresses that Ullmann assigns feudalism this role because of his basic plot — the ascending vs. descending theses. If these two are like oil and water, there must be a means of something alien to the theocratic-descending theme to aid its transition to late medieval populism, and feudalism plays that role, by first moving from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Only through violence can the theocratic principle move to constitutionalism.

Ullmann’s themes can helpfully interpret some medieval documents — Oakley mentions Magna Carta, &c. [17]

But [this scheme] works less well with Bracton, and it is only when one recognizes the tenacity of Ullmann’s commitment to it that such oddities in his interpretation of Bracton […] fall into a comprehensible and revealing pattern. For the texts are being stretched in fact on a conceptual framework sufficiently ill-fitting to cause no little distress. [17]

In Bracton, the “subordination of king to law” is not the result of feudal controls or anything, as it must be for Ullmann’s strict ascending vs. descending themes to fit neatly: rather, “the texts themselves characteristically link that subordination […] with what Ullmann would call the ‘theocratic’ function”. Bracton says that “there is no rex where will rules rather than lex“. It is final causes, and not efficient ones, that Bracton is concerned with.


Oakley further suggests that, at least to some degree, “Ullmann’s handling of the Bractonian texts is characteristic of his work as a whole”. “The drawbacks of [his] approach are again disturbingly evident.” [18] “Ullmann’s equations, it must be remembered, have already been drawn, and their terms admit of no modification.” [20]

This becomes clear when Ullmann examines the French & English monarchies through the lens of his ascending-descending plot. These “untidy phenomena”, however, don’t strictly fit this general plot of Ullmann’s.  Any phenomena not fitting the plot must be ignored or dismissed.

Hence, the representative assemblies of medieval France must needs be dismissed as “populist phantoms” possessed only of “pseudo-functions”. Hence, too, the vitality of the English parliament must needs be accounted for by the fact that its roots were feudal, and the easy penetration into England of the “idea of representation” by the fact that it was “no strange bedfellow” to feudalism. [20]

Oakley takes issue both with Ullmann’s treatment of consent and his ideas about  representation in the medieval period. Why does Ullmann ignore the rise of “representative procedures” in the papal states and in Church councils? –because, Oakley suggests, it doesn’t fit the story Ullmann wants to tell, it flies against the descending-theocratic theme. Ullmann states that “the idea of representation […] could never make its appearance” when things operated “within the descending theme” [21, fn. 68].


“The fundamental antagonism, the principal plot” [21] is the ascending-descending themes.


Oakley first focuses on Ullmann’s account of “the emergence and re-emergence of the fully-fledged theocratic-descending theme in the latter years of the Roman empire and in the monarchies of the early-medieval Latin West” [22]. Even though Ullmann grants that the politico-theology of the Principate and the ideology of Germanic sacral kingship had some role in accounting for the emergence of a “theocratic” form of political authority, it is really Pauline Christianity that he credits with the legitimating of it via texts such as “all power is from God” (Romans 13) and “what I am, I am by the grace of God” (1 Corinthians 15:10) [see 26, fn. 82]. Ullmann never explains why monarchic propagandists used these texts this way, though — the passages “say nothing about monarchy”. “Romans xiii […] simply asserts that there is something sacred about the authority which rulers possess”. [23] The New Testament has other views on the attitudes towards authority. It is not clear how Christianity can be credited with causing the theocratic view, if these other negative –sometimes highly negative– views of political authority are in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes that the Empire was “heathen” — how does one build a Christian theocracy from it? Augustine’s City of God is also very negative towards political authority; even though some later medieval writers attempted to absorb him in a “clericalist” [24] fashion. “Ullmann’s silence” on The City of God, Oakley speculates, may be “indicative of [Ullmann’s] inability to align it with his general conceptual framework.” [24]

Oakley credits, rather, Eusebius of Caesarea with the rise of the theocratic use of biblical texts, but Eusebius selects and interprets them according to “Hellenistic ideas about kingship” whose roots were in “Pythagorean-Platonic speculation and in Ancient Near Eastern notions of divine or sacral monarchy” [24], and not according to (in Ullmann’s words) “the specifically Christian idea” [25]. “King by the grace of God” is not a standard title until the 8th century, and conveys “a much more ancient [idea]” [25] not invented by Christians (Oakley gives examples). Ullmann attempts to ground his assertion of the Christian origins of theocratic kingship by Constantinian numismatic iconography, but Oakley shows pagan numismatic predecessor imagery. Ullmann seems to overplay the distinction between a divine emperor and an emperor who is merely one “by the grace of God”. [27] Oakley agrees with Ullmann when he suggests that the anointing of Pepin the Short in A.D. 751 was in lieu of “blood charisma” [28].

Scandinavian kingship was, consensus is, “entirely sacral”. [27] Yet Ullmann makes Scandinavia the bearer of populism and a torch-bearer for the ascending theme. Why? Ullmann contrasts Carolingian & pagan Scandinavian ideas of divine kingship by anachronistically projecting the late medieval natural/supernatural distinction onto them, and making pagan “god-sprung, priestly” Scandinavian kingship all about “blood” and “nature”. [29] Ullmann also seems to deny the theocratic nature of Scandinavian kings because they involved some sort of popular will & election — the historically unsupported and unsupportable assumption being that popularly elected kings and kingship rooted in the divine are inherently contradictory. [30] Election can have a sacred character. Oakley suggests that Ullmann oversteps in claiming that “true constitutionalism involves […] the presence of coercive sanctions”, and not merely “the limitation of executive power by law”. [18] Insofar as we can tell, the popular limitations of Germanic (& Irish & Scandinavian) kings was not a mark of the secularity of these kings, but “sprang precisely from [the kings’] sacral status”, because the king, by virtue of his connection with the gods, was responsible for prosperity and victory in war and the changing seasons and a successful harvest. [31] The Christian king’s dependence on God was usually understood so as to make him also dependent on the people, as Fritz Kern says; the king rests “upon a popular as well as a divine mandate”. [32] The concurrence of these elements in regular historical thought betrays the misleading features in Ullmann’s main plot.


Oakley then treats another sub-theme of Ullmann’s main plot: “the decisive reassertion of the populist-ascending theme by the Aristotelian thinkers of the latter Middle Ages.” [22] Ullmann’s exclusive categories (populist vs. theocratic) have effects in how this is told, and require “the dramatic intervention of a novel factor” to roll the clock back to the earlier “populist-ascending theme”. “The novel factor he has in mind is […] the recovery of the works of Aristotle”. [32] Aristotle’s works had this impact because they linked up with cultural shifts against theocracy brought about by feudalism. [33] Ullmann distorts the character of the recovery of Aristotle as much as he distorted the role of feudalism, though — and all for his main plot.

given his insistent correlation of the descending thesis with the supernatural and the ascending with the natural, Ullmann’s Aristotle and his medieval disciples must bear the burden of accounting at the same time for the recovery of a “naturalistic” view of political life and for the emphasis on popular consent as the source of political power that is assumed to go with it. [33]

Aristotle could be used by theocratic-descending authors, because he was not a “naturalist” the way Ullmann needs him to be. Ullmann’s Aristotle is first Christianized in Aquinas until he sheds “the Christian garb” ultimately in Marsilius of Padua. Ullmann ignores precedents in Christian Late Antiquity or papal pronouncements for positions that he paints as the loosening of the grip of the theocratic theme and the emergence of the natural flexibility of the ascending theme. [35] Ullmann tries to suggest that John of Paris’ use of the term “mystical body” for the Church and the term “moral and political body” for non-sacramental society indicates that the Church was “no juristic body in the traditional sense”. Ernest Kantorowicz (in pp.211-212 of The King’s Two Bodies) notes that the term “mystical body” is “integrated” “into the Aristotelian scheme” by the 14th century, lost its sacramental associations and acquires “political and juristic connotations”, so that the contrasting phrases Ullmann alighted upon were, in fact, interchangeable by John of Paris. [36] For John, “[r]oyal power is from God and from the people”, violating Ullmann’s categories. [37] This formula is anti-papalist, not populist.

There are other infelicities that Oakley singles out. Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s derivation of the polis from prior institutions such as the family is about the goal of power, rather than its source. The kind of representation found in Aquinas is “the older medieval view of representation as personification”, and not “the newer notion of representation as delegation”. [38] Oakley’s criticism of Ullmann’s treatment of Dante is convincing, upending Ullmann’s attempt to contrast Dante’s description of the ruler as “the servant of all” with the Pauline phrase “servant of God” (Dante, in fact, uses both), even though “servant of all” is also a biblical phrase (Mark 9:35, one verse off in the Vulgate).

Ullmann is presented as thinking that these three were transitional figures, however, and still had too much theocraticism in them to let forth a genuinely populist view. Marsilius, Ullmann holds, did that. The trouble is that Ullmann’s Aristotle is not Aristotle but Marsilius’ erroneous reading of Aristotle. [40]

neither in his separation of law and politics from morals, nor in his attribution of legislative sovereignty to the people, nor in his own particular version of political naturalism is Marsilius at one with Aristotle. [40]

Aristotle is not interested in limiting the state to the prevention of external injustices, but sees it as securing the best possible life, as “a sort of moral theology”. Marsilius saw reason as enforceable command coming from the people, but for Aristotle it is “the voice of Reason and of God”. [41] Law is teleological in Aristotle, and efficient in Marsilius. [42] Aristotle’s “naturalism” is similarly teleological: a thing is known in its outcomes, a thing’s nature is shown in them, not principally in efficient or mechanistic causes. [42] Ullmann, Oakley states, holds an unstated assumption that “Aristotelian naturalism” is Aquinas’ “nature”-minus-supernaturalism, and perhaps even a kind of primitivism (vs. teleological perfectionism). [43] The Aristotelian cosmology “pulsated to the rhythm of the divine”.

if we choose to talk at all about “Aristotelian naturalism”, we must be careful to do so in the knowledge that Aristotle’s idea of “the natural” was one which can itself be said in some degree to have comprehended that which under the influence of the Christian tradition we ourselves have become accustomed to classify as “the supernatural”. [44]


It’s no surprise that Ullmann first proposed his “schema” in the field of legal history. He created his schema to interpret “the rise to prominence in the late-medieval and modern eras of the conception of law as the product of a consciously legislating will”. [45] When he turned his attention from legal history to political philosophy, he did so by “fitting” Aristotle & the medieval Aristotelians into a schema designed for another job — the question what “distinguishes law […] from other regulations of a merely moral or extra-legal type.” [46] This lead him to a framework that presents “a fundamental continuity” between us and Aristotle, and a representation of the secular and natural as abiding, and interrupted by supernaturalism. Oakley holds, however, that the shift between the classical to the Christian was, instead, “a shift […] from one ancient and widespread mode of religious consciousness to another and radically different one.”

Once this is understood, of course, it is no longer, pace Ullmann, the “religious” nature of medieval political thinking that cries out for explanation, but rather the emergence in the modern era of that uniquely secularized political vision which has so succeeded in shaping the common political sense of the Western world that we are persistently tempted, even at the cost of rampant anachronism, to see it as something grounded in the very nature of man. But, then, it is properly the task of historical reflection rather to deliver us from such delusions than to strengthen our bondage to them. That in this respect it should fail us may well, therefore, be the gravest defect in Ullmann’s whole over-arching conceptual apparatus. [47]

Despite the praise that Oakley heaps upon Ullmann at moments –and they are not frequent here in this article– he concludes by stating that Ullmann’s work is “not” “fundamentally valid as a key to the understanding of medieval political thought”. [48]


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(e) of 2 (Oakley)

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

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

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