A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(f) of 2 (Nederman)

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-now-seven (a through e; part 2a here, part 2b here, part 2c here, part 2d here, part 2e1 here, and part 2e2 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. 

This is the final section of part two.

Cary Nederman opens his 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) with a chapter titled “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann”. Ullmann, it seems, is to be dealt with before the other figures that Nederman goes on to treat in his historiographical prelude — Quentin Skinner (see here and here), John Neville Figgis, and Alexander Passerin d’Entrèves (here and here).

What brought about Nederman’s essay on Ullmann was several conversations at the 2001 Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, MI (James Muldoon [here, here, here, and here] & Francis Oakley made these comments — did Oakley say it to Muldoon first, and plant the seed? I can’t help but wondering…). The conversations aren’t reported upon, but they appear to have been about how Ullmann was “ubiquitous” only “a generation ago” but that now his “voluminous writings are almost entirely out of print.” A “defining figure” has vanished at a “speed that is truly breathtaking”. [3]

Nederman says he won’t try to explain Ullmann’s effective excommunication, but he floats several theories — his “difficult personality”, his “increasingly rigid style of interpretation”, his tendency “to repeat himself”, and the passing of the cold war (which, he suggests, made Ullmann’s narrative attractive). [4]

Nederman does state that Ullmann’s earlier work  on Lucas de Penna and Medeival Palaplism are good, scholarly works, free of “the texbookish simplifications for which he became well known and eventually notorious.” [4]

Ullmann’s heritage is not a wreckage of “discredited ideas”, however:

[w]hile some of his major teachings have been demolished, his impact lingers in less obvious, but equally important, ways. Thus, any death notice for Ullmann’s historiography of early European political thought, while it may yet prove to be necessary, is presently premature. [5]

Nederman first goes on to recount the already-refuted features of Ullmann’s scholarship. Unsurprisingly, two of the main themes of Oakley’s critique –the controlling narrative of the ascending vs. the descending theme, and the role of the recovery of Aristotle’s Politics— are singled out as put to bed.

Nederman does a marvelous job summarizing the ascending and descending themes, citing quite a bit from Ullmann’s Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages.

In the theocratic model, the “authority of the ruler […] descended from God through him” [5], and insofar as anyone else had authority, it was delegated power. There was, in Ullmann’s telling, no right of resistance against the king. The monarch was “the sole and authoritative judge of the public good and utility” [6]. Sub-monarchical officials had no independent authority from the king’s.

In the populist model, “the authority of government arises from a grant of the people, in whom ultimate authority resides and whose will limits the independence of rulers.” [6] Feudalism and public associations (guilds & religious orders, &c.) helped this through practicing “communcal consent”, “limited government”, and “participatory citizenship”, but the recovery of Aristotle’s Politics was most important in giving ideological justification against theocratic claims, as it allegedly presented a “populist” and “naturalistic” vision of political life. [6, 7] “[P]olitical philosophy” was now “independent of theological considerations”. [7]

These two models were presented as alternating, historically. Christianity was chiefly responsible for the rise of the theocratic model. The reintroduction of Aristotle’s Politics was chiefly responsible for the re-emergence of a previously-“muted” populist model. Ullmann uses the word “supercession” to describe the re-emergence of secularity via Aristotle’s Politics being translation into Latin. Further, this is the turn to modernity: “this overcoming of the theocratic doctrine after 1250 ushers in modernity”. [7] It is not the Renaissance and Reformation that breed modernity: its origins are in the Aristotelian recovery. “The bases of modern public life –constitutional, democratic, naturalistic– may be found lurking in the intellectual terrain of medieval Europe.” [8]

Oakley is singled out for his 1973 article, “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited”, which, though Nederman said “defies summary”, I attempted to summarize in about 3k words, and which Oakley himself summarizes as well as can be done in the second of the two entries devoted to him in this series. Nederman mentions that the ascending & descending themes as an organizing framework was “effectively destroyed” [8] by Oakley. Regarding the Aristotelian retrieval, Nederman writes that

Aristotle was appropriated by medieval thinkers with equal or greater force as a proponent of absolutistic monarchy, papal as well as secular. Hence, there was nothing intrinsically “populist” about Aristotle or the medieval interpretation of him. Other scholars –myself included– showed how the circulation of the Politics did not induce the “conceptual revolution” posited by Ullmann, but instead reconfirmed and reinforced doctrines that were widely known and employed before the middle of the thirteenth century. [8]

In the end, “the elements of Ullmann’s framework that were most provocative and attracted the greatest attention may safely be declared dead and buried among serious scholars.” [9]


So what survives from Ullmann?

Nederman says that the “essential continuity of Western political thought commencing in circa 1250” [9] was Ullmannian in origin: modernity was not the radical break with the past via Renaissance and Reformation. “The emphasis on continuity that he pioneered is now everywhere on display.” [9] So Ullmann’s student Brian Tierney summarizes this well: “Seventeenth-century writers were often thinking medieval thoughts.” [cited from his Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650] [10] The tracing of “the roots of modern constitutionalism […] to lessons derived from canon law” that Tierney advanced in Foundations of the Conciliar Theory [it can also be found here] was “pioneered by Ullmann himself in the appendix to his 1948 book, The Origins of the Great Schism. “Hence, a major component of the current historiography of European political ideas has definite roots in Ullmann’s scholarship.” [10]

Then there is the other legacy of Ullmann that Nederman proposes, and it’s less flattering: the reduction of complex phenomena to simple narratives, and the privileging of legal sources in constructing sources and influences. [11] Nederman suggest that Tierney does this, too.

Finally, Nederman mentions Monty Python. Some of them were studying where Ullmann was teaching, and two even “specialized in the subject of medieval studies.” [11] Whether through his lectures or his books, “they evidently were exposed to his ascending/descending model” and incorporated it into a scene in their movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nederman mentions that no one has mentioned this connection before, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Since Nederman thinks this basic plot of Ullmann’s is wrong, is he suggesting we all give up academia and become YouTubers in an attempt to gain traction for whatever “truth” we wish to advance? It is an interesting connection, and I’m glad he pointed it out, but I’m not sure how this particular legacy of Ullmann via this means is helpful, if it is, in fact, wrong.


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!

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