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Ideas of Power in the Late Middle Ages, 1296–1417 by Joseph Canning (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 230-231 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0053

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Joseph Canning makes an important contribution to the history of power and political thought with this study, which tackles the fundamental question of where legitimate authority and power lie. This is the first focused study on ideas of power and authority in the long fourteenth century. Canning’s main contention is that fourteenth-century medieval scholastic writers developed radically new ways of discussing power through what he terms the ‘realistic turn’ (p. 4), an intensification and innovative use of authoritative texts to provide solutions to the problems of real-world politics. Canning demonstrates that deep-seated conflicts and profound political changes of the period provided the stimuli for writers to question fundamental presuppositions about power and authority.

Organized into six chronological chapters, Canning’s study explores the late medieval series of conflicts over the papacy’s claims to power and authority. Chapter 1 examines eight tracts produced during the disputes between Philip IV and Boniface VIII over the jurisdiction of temporal and spiritual power, which employed various interpretations of the hierocratic and dualist models of papal authority. Canning makes it clear that while the writers of these tracts were not ostensibly trying to innovate, they did so either ‘incidentally or under the guise of arguments supported by authority’ (p. 19). Canning highlights for the reader the most striking notions about power and authority presented by these authors and demonstrates that both Aristotelian and Augustinian languages were used for justifying the autonomy of secular power and authority.

One achievement of this book is that it makes the history of political thought more accessible by drawing the reader’s attention to the personal motivations of the writers and their political reality. In a highly engaging second chapter, Canning argues that Dante sought to disprove the papal position held during the controversy between Philip IV and Boniface VIII on the grounds that the arguments employed were illogical or unsuitable. Dante’s contribution to political philosophy was original, Canning demonstrates, because of his method and the questions that he raised around political speculation. Canning shows us that Dante’s approach was informed by his own personal experiences as a victim of factionalism, his own understanding of man as an intellectual being, and his commitment to a common and universal humanity.

Marsilius of Padua was even more driven than Dante to write from his personal experiences of contemporary politics. Chapter 3 explores how Marsilius wanted to show how peace could be achieved, and to this end set out to demonstrate where legitimate authority did and did not reside. Canning situates his own arguments within the current deeply contested interpretations of Marsilius’s work to argue for a closer examination of his neglected providential view of history.

Chapter 4 focuses on issues of power and authority raised by the poverty debates between the papacy and a small minority of Spiritual Franciscans. Canning is especially concerned with the ideas of the theologian William of Ockham, a key exponent of poverty, and his non-political arguments. Canning is able to show that even while Ockham discussed legitimate and illegitimate power he ‘expressed a scale of values which minimized the significance of politics, law and power’ (p. 119).

Canning uses Chapter 5 to examine juristic discourse on issues of legitimate power, and the specific issue of papal temporal power in the Papal States. Canning also sets out to contribute to a key historical debate in studies of political thought over whether notions of state and sovereignty can be usefully applied to any historical period. Canning concentrates on the work of two fourteenth-century jurists of the Commentators school, Bartolus of Sassoferrato and Baldus de Ubaldis. Canning advocates convincingly for a hierarchy of sovereignty to best describe the views of these jurists, a model in which de iure and de facto power existed in parallel. Canning joins other political historians in concluding that the concepts of sovereignty and state may be useful tools of interpretation, as long as it is recognized that they are ‘forms of ideal types’ and therefore do not correspond to any particular historical reality (p. 157).

The final chapter examines two sets of ideas that were developed during the Great Schism and which threatened claims to...

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