Skip to content

Response to Review no. 33

I was surprised by the contents of this review, because its main contention is that my treatment of medieval political thought predominantly follows the lines laid down by Walter Ullmann. I consider that Janet Nelson has here misleadingly focused so much on Ullmann, whose research student she also was: she has seen my book through distorting spectacles. I mentioned him in my preface because I felt I owed him a debt – without him I would never have embarked upon the study of medieval political thought in the first place. I have tried to give him his due, although the reader will see that I am highly critical of his approach: he was, in my view, a flawed genius. I am told that at Cambridge these days it is as though he had never been: a pity and an injustice.

Nelson is a distinguished scholar of the Carolingian period, and of the ninth century in particular. Of the second half of my book (that is, 1050-1450), she says, ‘the texts chosen for more detailed discussion are largely those Ullmann chose, and…the readings offered seldom diverge from Ullmann’s’. Her remarks here are, simply, incorrect, as the reader will see. My treatment of, for instance, Aquinas, Marsilius and the conciliar movement should demonstrate this. I do find her judgment here genuinely strange.

There is a deeper reason why her focus on Ullmann is misleading. He himself was only part of a long-standing Germanic tradition of scholarship which focused to a considerable degree on legal questions. Too much originality should not be attributed to him. Otto von Gierke’s ghost is very much present in his works.

Nelson’s remarks about my treatment of feudal matters (or feudalism, if I may be so bold) raise important questions fundamental to the interpretation of medieval history. The jury is still out on feudalism: E.A.R. Brown’s rejection of the notion has been by no means universally accepted. I was acutely aware that in a book of this kind I had to be judicious in my treatment out of a sense of responsibility to the reader. For this reason I was careful not to pontificate about feudal matters because there is so much radical disagreement amongst modern scholars. Susan Reynolds’s, Fiefs and Vassals, came into my hands at a very late stage of the completion of the manuscript; I did not feel that I could give her more of a mention in the circumstances. It is not my intention here to participate in the acrimonious debate about her ideas. I would say, however, that her book has been seriously criticized, as for instance by Johannes Fried in the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute London (May 1997). In any case, we have to wait for Magnus Ryan’s forthcoming book on the Libri feudorum before we can make real progress on this question. I maintain, though, that Nelson misrepresents my treatment of feudal concepts: I did not equate the consensual aspects of Garolingian kingship with feudal ones, nor did I use signorial as a synonym for feudal. I was careful to refer to bonds of fidelity rather than feudal ones because of the misleading baggage that ‘feudal’ might bring with it.

Certain other points in her review deserve specific mention. In her last paragraph, following Susan Reynolds, she questions the contribution of juristic corporation theory to the development of ideas of the state as an abstract entity. I do not agree: I have dealt with this topic at considerable length elsewhere and must issue an academic health warning against this view. She says that in my book ‘more recent views of Innocent III as a pastoral carer are set against Ullmann’s picture of the archhierocrat’. I should say that the interrelation between the pastoral and power aspects of Innocent’s conception of the pope’s role is far more complicated than may at first appear. My paper delivered at the conference on ‘Innocent III and his World’ at Hofstra University, New York, earlier this year explored this problem. Nelson is right to home in on concepts of power. My new medium-term research project is on ideas of power in the late Middle Ages. Last September, the British Centre for Historical Research in Germany held a conference in collaboration with the Max-Planck-Institut fur Geschichte at Gottingen: we explored the relationship between political ideas and reality in the Middle Ages unfortunately Nelson had to withdraw from this. She also refers to medieval church-state conflicts as ‘essentially struggles about power and property’. They were indeed about power and property – but only in part. They were also concerned with the order of this world and its relationship to the next. It is important to take the ideas expressed in the Middle Ages seriously and not to exaggerate the extent to which statements about, for instance, Christian ministerial kingship, the salvific purpose of rulership and the superiority of clergy over laity were expressions of relations based on power, property and (for some historians) patriarchy.

As regards the overall balance of my book, I had to curtail what I would have liked to have said about the later period because of considerations of space. I was determined to give a lengthy treatment to the Carolingian period because of its seminal importance. On later medieval juristic material my view was that readers could refer to my other writings for elaboration. Virtually everything in this book is on subjects and periods on which I have not previously written.

Yes, there are omissions from the bibliography. This is inevitable given the nature of the subject. A full bibliography would have entailed a separate full-length book (at least). I decided to refer to books and articles which naturally arose from the text, plus some general books. The choice of general books was largely dictated by my experience of teaching this subject over many years here at Bangor (where the subject has been offered by me and my predecessors for forty years or so). Nelson says that my omission of Beryl Smalley’s Trends in Medieval Political Thought is ‘quite the most surprising omission from his bibliography’. I decided not to put it in because in practice, with my students, it has not been as useful as she suggests. Ewart Lewis has been much more help. More recently, and for the late Middle Ages, Antony Black’s general history has been profitably referred to by students.

In writing this book, I was well aware that an alternative history of medieval political thought could be written which would concentrate on sources, notably literary and archival ones, which I had not covered. I make no apologies for my approach which reflects the kind of historian I am and the issues I consider to be important. Because of the length and nature of this book I had to be selective and give a clear guide through the forest of medieval political thought. The notion of further exploring literature (in prose and poetry) as sources of medieval political ideas is very interesting and potentially fruitful. One of the most forward-looking developments in the study of our subject has been Ed Callahan and Stephen Lahey’s foundation of ‘Politicas – The Society of the Study of Medieval Political thought’. One of our sessions at Kalamazoo in May 1998 will be devoted to this group of sources. Maybe someone should write this alternative history – but it will not be me.

In conclusion, I do not accept Nelson’s review, because in my opinion it misrepresents my book and through its focus on Ullmann sets up, for the prospective reader, a false context within which to interpret what I have to say.