Long Before Machiavelli

8 07 2008
Heidelberg historian Jürgen Miethke on “Political Theory in the Middle Ages”
In the course of his work, Jürgen Miethke, emeritus professor at the Department of History of the University of Heidelberg, hit upon an intriguing and multi-faceted field of research leading to the publication of an impressive overview of the subject eight years ago. Recently a revised but largely unchanged edition appeared in which Jürgen Miethke, whose doctoral dissertation in the late 1960s centred on William of Ockham’s path to social philosophy, investigates the parameters conditioning the origination and the repercussions of political theories that had a major impact on the development of relations between the state and the church.

The result is a standard work on the evolution and effects of political theories in the Middle Ages. The renowned historian, greatly acclaimed for the copious detail of his investigations, focuses on ideas and trains of thought produced by the debate on papal authority. This issue was a major bone of contention among scholars in the first half of the 14th century. The debate was conducted largely at scholastic universities and the courts of the rulers.

Sometimes sticking up for one’s own opinion on the matter made it necessary for combative scholars to flee the “long arm of the law”. One example is Marsilius of Padua, who bolted from Paris in the summer of 1326 leaving considerable debts unpaid. In his Defensor pacis Marsilius had engaged with the contemporary situation in the empire. It was prompted, though not solely motivated, by the crisis of the Roman Empire of the German Nation triggered by the dispute between Louis the Bavarian and the Pope about the king’s rights of rulership.

Once Defensor pacis had been published, Marsilius and Jean Jandun, believed by contemporaries to have had a hand in the gestation of the pamphlet, were able to move around freely in Paris for a while. But then things came to a head and they both had to drop everything and hightail it out of the French capital.

As Jürgen Miethke explains, they sought refuge with Louis the Bavarian because the Paris inquisition was hot on their heels. His book does not make for easy reading, but the reward for perseverance is a host of unique insights into the thought world of the Middle Ages, a period just as dependent on “guiding sciences” as our own.
Heiko P. Wacker
© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

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Jürgen Miethke: “Politiktheorie im Mittelalter. Von Thomas von Aquin bis Wilhelm von Ockham” [Political Theory in the Middle Ages. From Thomas Aquinas to William of Occam]. Mohr Siebeck Verlag, Tübingen 2008. UTB 3059. 351 pp., boards; 24.90 euros. ISBN: 978-3-8252-3059-3

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