Medieval Political Readings

The following readings reflect a number of medieval beliefs on the relationship of imperial (or royal) power and authority as opposed to papal (or ecclesiastical) power and authority. Broadly speaking, their positions stress six elements:

  1. The authority of the pope

  2. The authority of the emperor (or kings)

  3. The authority of councils

  4. The rights of the people

  5. The place of law--divine, human, natural, civil, principled, arbitrary

  6. The ultimate authority of God

Each position has to account for each of these in some way, at least implicitly. Some positions, favor a division of authority between pope and king, spiritual and temporal respectively, while others assign a more comprehensive authority to the pope. In the same way, various theorists point to the responsibilities of rulers to law and to God, as well as the principle of the people's common good. Conciliarism looked to the rule of councils at least as a way to address matters gone wrong in papal rule.

"Superiority of Spiritual Authority" from Boniface VIII (MR 233-236)

painting of Boniface VIII
  1. How does Boniface VIII base his argument on the unity of the Church?

  2. How does he employ the "two swords" doctrine?

  3. Why does he argue for the spiritual authority leading the temporal authority?

  4. How does he tie salvation to papal authority?

  5. How would you answer his biblical and theological claims?


"The Creation of Cardinals" from Pius II (MR 239-241)

  1. How does Pius II picture the office of the cardinal?
  2. What character does the office call for?
  3. What is the relationship between Pius' rhetoric and the actual investiture ceremony?

"The Fourth Lateran Council" from Roger of Wendover (MR 241-243)

  1. How would you describe the council? What impressions stand out from Roger's description?
  2. How does Innocent III make his appeal for participation in the Crusade?
  3. What promises of indulgence does he make?

"Letter to Henry II" from Thomas Becket (MR 248-250)

  1. How does Becket describe his divine relationship to Henry II?
  2. How does he view the relationship of the two powers?
  3. What demands does he make? How does he back them up?

"Nature of a True Prince" from John of Salisbury (MR 251-258)

painting of Otto Ili getting coronated

  1. What distinguishes a true prince from a tyrant?
  2. From where and for what is the prince's power and authority?
  3. Why should he administer it with equity?
  4. Why should all people be subject to law, and how is the prince also subject to law?
  5. Why must the prince not have his own will? How should he treat the people?
  6. Why is the princely office a "sacred office" but one inferior to that of the priesthood?
  7. How are virtue and liberty related?
  8. Under what conditions is it permissible to overthrow and kill a tyrant?

"Independence of Temporal Authority" from Frederick Barbarossa (MR 259-261)

  1. How does Frederick judge the state of the papacy?
  2. How does he view the business of the apostolic legates?
  3. How does he interpret the doctrine of the two swords?

"On the Supremacy of General Councils in Church and Empire" from Nicholas of Cusa (MR 303-310)

  1. Why does the pope not have absolute authority?
  2. Why are the papal claims of absolute authority not supported by scripture?
  3. How does Nicholas advocate the ideas of natural law, freedom, and consent of the governed?
  4. What gives constitutions and councils authority?
  5. Where do free elections derive from?
  6. How should a ruler act to establish laws?
  7. What would be the purpose of an annual council?