- The Mortgage of the Past. Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritanceby Francis Oakley
This second volume of Francis Oakley’s impressive trilogy on the emergence of Western political thought deals with three main topics—church-state relations, the recovery of ancient philosophy, and the medieval idea of representation. These apparently disparate themes all reflect some underlying ideas that characterize Oakley’s work.
The book opens with the Investiture Contest of the late-eleventh century, a struggle that began when a reformed papacy challenged the then taken-for-granted right of the emperor to appoint bishops throughout his realm. The reformers quoted ancient laws referring to the election of bishops in the early Church, but the laws took on a new significance when they were applied to bishops who now were not just shepherds of a Christian flock but often great feudal lords holding large estates from the emperor. When the emperor resisted the pope’s demands, a long struggle ensued that finally ended in a compromise. Its principal results, Oakley notes, were a diminishing of royal sacrality and the establishment of two structures of government, ecclesiastical and secular, each limiting the power of the other.
Oakley next presents a series of chapters on “recuperating the past” (p. 42). He explains how medieval scholars could learn from ancient philosophers that the phenomena of the physical universe could be explained by natural causation without any direct divine intervention and how this might lead to an awareness that the world of the political, too, was something natural [End Page 339]to man. But the author also insists that the revival of ancient ideas was not just a passive rediscovery; rather, the ideas underwent a “transformational reinterpretation” (p. 43) when they were assimilated into a medieval Christian culture.
Oakley finally turns to a quite different theme, the development of the idea of representation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Here, the argument revolves around two phrases of Roman law: plena potestasand quod omnes tangit. This language had no constitutional significance in its original ancient context. But, building on earlier work of Gaines Post, Oakley shows how, when the language was assimilated into the canon law of the twelfth century, it was “profoundly reshaped” (p. 147) and eventually came to be accepted as defining principles of public law relating to the summoning of elected representatives, first to church councils, then by a sort of osmosis to secular assemblies.
The topics covered deal with quite different issues but, as previously suggested, they can all be seen as exemplifications of a common approach that characterizes Oakley’s work. The author is persistently concerned with the tensions and interplay between ecclesiastical and secular government and, equally important, with the tensions and interplay between the medieval world of thought and ideas revived from the past. These concerns were all evident in the material we have considered. In each case, ancient ideas were reshaped when they were applied to the realities of medieval society; then the changed ideas in their new form helped to reshape the medieval reality. Oakley’s work helps us to understand how this whole complex process could be a source of the progressive change that would finally lead to a form of modern political thought.
Oakley has undertaken a highly ambitious project, one that calls for much erudition and not a little courage. Although we still await his final volume, it already seems clear that the completed opus will be an outstanding work of historical synthesis, ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed.