The Medieval Review 12.11.17

Moreno-Riaño, Gerson and Cary J. Nederman. A Companion to Marsilius of Padua. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xii, 353. $175.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-18348-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Thomas Turley
Santa Clara University

Modern study of Marsilius of Padua has produced a broad and contentious literature. The novelty of the doctrines propounded in the Defensor pacis and the work's peculiar construction--half philosophical examination of the nature of ideal government, half theological and historical critique of the papacy's role in contemporary ecclesiology--have left interpreters struggling to grasp its key. Since the 1970s, a variety of valuable studies have sought answers in the setting and sources of the Paduan's teachings. The volume under review is an attempt to construct a new profile of Marsilius in light of recent directions in research. Mindful of the pitfalls lurking in overarching theoretical frameworks, the editors offer nine independent essays on his life and thought. The essays are grouped under four linked themes: Marsilius's biography, sources of his political theory, the interpretation of his teachings, and his later works and influence. Together they present a complex and highly contextualized portrait of their subject.

Frank Godthardt's substantial contribution is a perceptive reexamination of the conventional biography, particularly those episodes considered pivotal in the development the Paduan's political doctrines. Reviewing neglected evidence with considerable care, Godthardt argues that Marsilius's decision to support the Ghibelline cause in 1318, a dramatic turning point in his career, was not a cynical or opportunistic move, as some have assumed, but the result of genuine conviction. He finds consistency and purpose in Marsilius's behavior after this point. The composition of the Defensor pacis, begun in Paris in 1319, was a calculated political act entirely consistent with the decision made the previous year. Its exposé of perceived injustices of the Roman church included a powerful call to political action and a personal promise to join the fight through "external action, as much as I may be able" (DP I.xix.13). (Here Godthardt builds on the insights of Dolf Sternberger and Cary Nederman.) Godthardt also challenges the common scholarly assumptions that Marsilius lingered at Paris for two years after he finished the Defensor pacis (1324-1326) and joined the emperor Ludwig of Bavaria's struggle against the papacy only because he was unmasked as its author. He observes that Marsilius made little effort to disguise his identity in the Defensor pacis and points to overlooked evidence that he departed for the imperial court shortly after completing the work in 1324, apparently to pursue the "external action" he had promised. This early arrival at the imperial court makes more comprehensible the position of trust and influence we know Marsilius enjoyed in late 1326, when he was included in a small group of advisors who accompanied Ludwig to important negotiations with Ghibelline leaders at Trent. Godthardt's incisive survey of the activities of Marsilius during Ludwig's incusion into Italy, particularly his close involvement in the emperor's coronation and the installation of the antipope Nicholas V, confirms the Paduan's personal participation at important junctures and the "almost tangible" influence of his political theories at these events. A concluding review of papal-imperial negotiations in 1330-1331 counters the suggestion that Marsilius lost influence with Ludwig after the Roman expedition.

In the second essay, William Courtenay skillfully negotiates difficult evidence to make a good case for the priority of Paris in forming Marsilius's political views. The Paduan received most of his education and did the majority of his writing and teaching in the French capital; he also maintained a circle of friends there--primarily Italians on the university's faculties of theology, arts, and medicine--that had close connections to the royal court. Courtenay notes that Marsilius's first act against the papacy in the summer of 1318--undertaken while he was in Italy--was to mobilize his Parisian contacts to convince the French crown to intervene on behalf of the Ghibellines. When this failed, he elected to return to Paris to write the Defensor pacis. Courtenay suggests that the intellectual atmosphere of Paris and Marsilius's memories of the reign of Philip IV had as profound an influence on the content of this work as his knowledge of the political life and communal organization of Padua.

Another much debated issue, the impact of the Paduan's medical training on his political ideas, is treated by Takashi Shogimen in a penetrating study. Proceeding from the work of Jeannine Quillet and Paolo Marangon, as well as more recent observations by Annabel Brett, Joseph Canning, Floriano Cesar, and Alexander Aichele, Shogimen demonstrates that Marsilius ignored traditional organic political imagery in framing his discussion, deploying instead physiological and pathological metaphors that allowed him to perform his analysis using medical methodology. By mapping political theory in medical terms, Marsilius was able to treat civil politics without reference to theology or teleology. Shogimen considers the "medicalization" of political theory in the Defensor pacis to be the major reason for the autonomy of its discourse on politics and its consequent character as a work of secular political theory. He contends that it led Marsilius to ignore Aristotelian concerns for moral perfection in political philosophy and instead reduce the function of government to the regulation of disputes through law. Similarly, the Paduan's application to government of the medical notion of balanced complexion in organisms, which was thought to vary from organism to organism, inspired his refusal to define an optimal form of government or absolute criteria for the good balance of political and social life.

Gerson Moreno-Raiño and Cary Nederman offer a cogent analysis of Marsilius's secular political principles. They locate the essential dynamic of his views in a pervasive tension between the medieval Christian world-view and a seemingly modern, secular sensibility--a tension reflected even in the basic structure of the Defensor pacis. Discourse I, they observe, explains in rational terms the capacity of the secular state to achieve human happiness, while Discourse II identifies the danger to human happiness posed by the interference of papal rule and draws on traditional Christian sources to recommend specific ecclesiastical reforms that will bring state and church into harmony. They also find in the work an intensely practical purpose: to identify institutional failures in the church and propose "common-sense solutions." Appeal to the latter, the normative capacity of most people to perceive self-evident truths and reason from them, they consider the underlying "cement" of Marsilius's political thought. Thus Defensor pacis, Defensor minor, and De translatione Imperii are all constructed to draw an audience toward conclusions they can easily see to be true, but have previously avoided through fear, prejudice, or confusion. Starting from broad Aristotelian principles, Marsilius presents a "generic" theory of politics applicable to any situation. He depicts the optimal human circumstances on earth, "sufficiency of life" and the peace required to achieve it, as achievable through human reason and consent, and asserts the necessity of a secular community to secure and maintain these twin goals. As religion's purpose is to secure the happiness of individuals in the hereafter, it plays no essential part in this temporal economy. The rational communal will must establish and control religious belief and practice, however, because religion functions on a level beyond reason. For the same reason, priesthoods must operate under the authority of the civil community. Moreno-Riaño and Nederman emphasize that Marsilius's views here are neither as secular nor as antagonistic to Christianity as modern analyses often contend, but are in fact a "highly nuanced" variation of Christian political thinking that keeps God as the source of all earthly rule, but transfers the formation of governments to human reason, which is the creation of God.

Bettina Koch continues the discussion of Marsilius's views on the relation between religion and secular government with a keen analysis of Discourse II. She systematically reviews his critique of the current state of the church, particularly his manipulation of language and history to demolish papal claims to spiritual and temporal authority. Like Moreno-Riaño and Nederman, she contends that Marsilius's ultimate purpose is not to separate the spiritual and temporal powers, but to properly integrate the spiritual into the civil community so that it is subordinated to the rule of law. Although Marsilius does not consider salvation an end of the state properly speaking, he affirms that the community is responsible for establishing the conditions that encourage religion, as the state exists for the good of its members. Anything affecting the community, including belief, is subject to the influence of the community, and similarly, anyone who enjoys the advantages of life in the state must accept its norms. Consequently, the community can tax the church, elect priests, choose representatives for ecclesiastical councils, and settle disputes among the clergy, even on questions of faith, and clergy must accept the authority of the community. Clergy also must be excluded from the political functions laymen perform because these activities distract them from their catechetical and sacramental mission. Koch's concluding synopsis of Marsilius's views on the function of the general council, introduced to demonstrate the Paduan's desire to integrate church into state, is particularly valuable.

The sincerity of Marsilius, especially in discussing spiritual matters, has been a matter of ongoing debate in modern analysis of his political thought. Moreno-Riaño, Nederman, and Koch do not address this issue directly, but agree on the coherence, and presumably the seriousness, of his restructuring of the ecclesiastical system. Michael J. Sweeney investigates the matter more closely. In a cogent essay on Marsilius's notion of the church's spirituality that energetically engages current scholarship, Sweeney finds sophistication and depth in the Paduan's singular views on scripture and its interpretation, the history of salvation, the function of grace, and the relation of sacraments to their ministers. He affirms that Discourse II carries the main message of the Defensor pacis, an honest call for ecclesial reform, and that Marsilius's arguments in this section of the work are so consistent and well grounded that it could stand on its own as a theological treatise. The only substantive theological weaknesses Sweeney finds--and they are significant--are Marsilius's dismissal of the Pauline letters in his endeavor to decouple grace from law and his allowance of an Averroistic "double truth" in his explanation of the operation of the Eucharist.

Roberto Lambertini's consideration of the influence of the early fourteenth century's poverty controversy on the construction of Discourse II is more focused on Marsilius's sources than on his sincerity. He agrees with Sweeney that the theological dimensions of the Defensor pacis have been too easily ignored by scholars and asserts the central position of poverty in the Paduan's ecclesiological positions. After a judicious review of the scholarly discussion that has emerged in recent decades, Lambertini undertakes a careful reading of the excursus in which Marsilius made his argument: DP II.xi-xiv. Here he develops the suggestion made by Kerry Spiers and Annabel Brett that Marsilius's primary targets here were prominent Dominican controversialists on the papal side, notably Hervaeus Natalis and Raymond Béquin. Turning to the Paduan's use of Franciscan arguments from the poverty controversy, Lambertini stresses that Marsilius was no kinder to these authors than he was to papalists. He rejected most of the Franciscan claims, especially the notion that practical observance of Christ's absolute poverty could be left to a single religious order, and embraced their central tenet-- that Christ and the apostles were poor both individually and in common--only to demand that all clergy observe this way of life. In doing so, Marsilius undercut the arguments of the disputants on both sides and created a new theoretical framework for apostolic poverty that radically altered the position of all clergy.

The last two essays treat Marsilius after the Defensor pacis. Gianluca Briguglia evaluates the De translatione Imperii and the Defensor minor; Thomas Izbicki traces the reception of the Paduan through the early modern era. Briguglia deftly demonstrates that Marsilius's later works, written as occasional polemics, are important addenda to the Defensor pacis that offer particular insight into his approach to historical evidence. The valid transfer of Rome's imperial authority that Marsilius addressed in his De translatione Imperii was considered by many contemporaries to be essential to the legitimacy and autonomy of German monarchs. As the debate centered on the authority of the Donation of Constantine and the coronation of Charlemagne, the basically juridical issues under discussion pivoted on historical evidence. Briguglia focuses on Marsilius's exploitation of available histories of the translation-- especially the work of the papalist Landulphus Colonna--and his integration of this evidence into his argument. Unlike earlier commentators such as John of Paris, Marsilius was quite comfortable granting historical evidence authoritative status in argument; however, he selected and altered it in much the same way he did scriptural evidence, interested "not in history itself but, rather, in its ideological role in political theory" (287). Briguglia finds similar methods employed in the Defensor minor. This elaborate theoretical assertion of the emperor's jurisdictional authority to annul an important dynastic marriage sought to subvert the tradition of Roman primacy by throwing into question its supporting historical narrative. Once again, Marsilius turned to historical evidence, this time filtering it through an idiosyncratic definition of iurisdictio to amplify, restrict, or eliminate sources. Discounting the opinions of the canonists and reading scripture with a quirky literalism, he was able to construct a version of ecclesiastical history that effectively expunged Roman primacy from the narrative.

Thomas Izbicki's analysis of the reception of Marsilius's work from the mid-fourteenth century to the seventeenth brings coherence to a difficult subject. The evidence for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is particularly thin. Izbicki examines the manuscript record and the history of early printed editions and translations before surveying the references found in individual authors. He finds the diffusion predictable: opponents of the papacy--Gallicans, imperialists, conciliarists, and Protestants--were most responsible for preserving Marsilius's works. The twenty-eight extant manuscripts of the Defensor pacis are French or German; the seven editions of the Defensor pacis and five of the De translatione Imperii printed between 1522 and 1690 were all published in Protestant Germany. Izbicki's detailed review of theologians and political thinkers yields similar results: scattered discussion of Marsilius during the fifteenth century among papalists and their adversaries, serious scrutiny of his works from the start of the Reformation to the middle of the seventeenth century, then a collapse of interest until the modern era, when readers found new dimensions in his thought.

This volume is an important contribution to Marsilian studies. In their introduction, the editors liken it to a photographic montage that offers a comprehensive portrait of Marsilius by viewing him from different yet complementary historical and scholarly perspectives. The effect is quite successful. These essays step beyond synthesis, offering challenging new understandings of the complex intellectual and historical influences that played upon the Paduan.