A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 1 of 2

I mentioned Ullmann in a post about the ends of political power in Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) just over a month ago; I then addressed him more directly in a post about an experience of reading one of his books last week. I said that I was going to cover mostly the secondary literature on Ullmann, and this mostly by Ullmann’s students, to get a profile of the man mostly from those who knew him; originally I had intended not to look at Ullmann’s own writings much for this exercise, despite knowing that this is bad academic practice — not far from journalism.

I broke my rule, however, and looked at some of the man’s own writings. I found this passage in one of his works, describing one class of people who research “the institutional machinery of the papacy” in a way that makes their research dismissable:

remaining as they do on the surface, untouched as they are by contact with the sources, and relying as they do on secondary literature, they have little else but their own purely subjective-moral evaluations with which their presentation is interleaved. When one knows no sources, except perhaps those conveniently selected in well-known compendia, one virtually must take refuge in moralising judgements; how else is one to paint a picture? [1]

Perhaps it was a reader-response reaction, but I felt like the man was talking about me, to me. Below, after an initial overview, we shall survey what I have been able to uncover about Ullmann’s life, then cover the contours of his personality as it is revealed in what people have written about him.

In the next (second and final) post, we shall review the general outline of the better-known elements in the schema of Ullmann’s thought, and then review the criticisms that have been leveled against him.

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A Prelude to a Preface to Walter Ullmann

In the middle of the summer of 2016, I was plowing through books on Marsilius of Padua (ca. A.D. 1275–ca. 1342) and the figures and the history leading up to him. One professor I spoke with suggested that I look into the history of Roman law –rather than to principles found in Benedictine monasticism— to explain some of the cultural features that would make sense out of some of the positions characteristic of Marsilius.

So I started to tear through books on Roman law. I read through Stein, and acquired many of the primary sources found in the end-of-chapter bibliographies; I bought Harries, and picked up Jolowicz. I began carefully to read my way through several sections of Justinian’s InstitutesStein I was reading together with CanningKing, and Black, among others; in Canning’s and King’s works, in some of the choicest footnoted section, I kept running across references to a work titled Law and Politics in the Middle Ages by Walter Ullmann. Ullmann taught several of the members of Monty Python, Nederman wrote, and several ideas of his (again, so I was told) are expressed in their movies, and in their radio and TV shows — so he must be fascinating and entertaining! Ergo, I picked up a copy of Ullmann’s Law and Politics, and started reading through it.  Continue reading