A week away gave me the chance to read another very impressive book by Francis Oakley, this time on conciliarism. I will be posting about the implications of Oakley’s argument not only for claims of papal supremacy but also for considering the relations between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. But for now, here’s an earlier argument from Quentin Skinner on the import of medieval conciliarism for resistance theory and revolution:
The study of radical politics in early modern Europe has for some time been dominated by the concept of “Calvinist theory of revolution.” I have now sought to suggest that strictly speaking no such entity exists. The revolutions of sixteenth-century Europe were, of course, largely conducted by professed Calvinists, but the theories in terms of which they sought to explain and justify their actions were not, at least in their main outlines, specifically Calvinist at all. When the Calvinist George Buchanan stated for the first time on behalf of the Reformed Churches a fully secularized and populist theory of political resistance, he was largely restating a position already attained by the Catholic John Mair in his teaching at the Sorbonne over a half a century before. Mair and his pupils had bequeathed to the era of the Reformation all the leading elements of the classic and most radical version of the early modern theory of revolution, the version most familiar to us from the closing chapters of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. It only remained for Mair’s pupil Buchanan to take over the concepts and arguments he had learnt from his scholastic teachers and press them into service on behalf of the Calvinist cause. (“The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution,” in After the Reformation, 324-25)
Striking to observe is Skinner’s account of when the scholastic conciliar ideas regained traction in Europe:
Early in the sixteenth century these legal and conciliarist ideas were revived and extended by a group of avowed followers of Ockham and Gerson at the University of Paris. The occasion for this development was provided by the fact that the French king, Louis XII, became involved in a quarrel with Pope Julius II in 1510, after the collapse of the League of Cambrai. Alarmed by Louis’ decisive victory over the Venetians in the previous year, Julius sought to repudiate the alliance he had formed with the French in 1508. Louis responded by appealing over the pope’s head to a General Council of the Church, calling at the same time on the University of Paris to confirm his claim that the Church as a body possessed a higher authority than the pope. The professors at the Sorbonne produced in reply a number of systematic works of political theory, defending the idea of popular sovereignty not only as a claim about the government of the Church, but also as a thesis about the location of political authority in the State.
Skinner notes that one of these professors was John Mair (1467-1550), under whom Buchanan and Calvin studied.
For Almain as well as Mair the point of departure in the analysis of political society is the idea of the original freedom of the people. . . . The origin of political society is thus traced to two complementary developments: the fact that God gave men the capacity to form such communities in order to remedy their sins; and the fact that men duly made use of these rational powers in order to “introduce kings” by “an act of consent on the part of the people” as a means of improving their own welfare and security. (321-22)
Rather than the papacy being a solution to the disorder of the modern world, the popes’ assertion of power in the heady days of the 13th and 14th centuries may have produced reactions that allowed republicanism and constitutionalism to eventually prevail in the West.