12.12.09, Canning, Ideas of Power in the Late Middle Ages

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Geoffrey Koziol

The Medieval Review 12.12.09

Canning, Joseph. Ideas of Power in the Late Middle Ages, 1296-1417. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 219. ISBN: 978-1-107-01141-0.

Reviewed by:

Geoffrey Koziol
University of California, Berkeley

This book grew on me. In his introduction, Canning writes that he will argue that "radically new ways of discussing questions of power" developed during the later Middle Ages and that he will focus especially on "the most fundamental problem of political thought-- where does legitimate authority lie?" He further states that the authors he discusses "were characterized by an engagement with political reality," particularly with the political and religious crises that marked the period (1). It is hard to become excited by a book that promises to prove what few could reasonably doubt. The remainder of the introduction and the first three chapters continue to give a sense of déjà vu, as Canning treats authors, texts, and events long familiar from the Carlyles and Ewart Lewis: Giles of Rome, James of Viterbo, John of Paris, the polemical tracts written during the dispute between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII, and, of course, Dante's De monarchia. To be sure, Canning treats these texts and authors very well. And it has been some time since such a book was published, the most recent overviews of political theory tending to be thematic in organization and, as a result, a little confusing. Canning's exposition is classic in its canon, its chronological sequence, and the problems he discusses. For that reason alone, his book is quite welcome. It is clearly the first place one will now turn to for basic orientation on any number of authors and texts, not only those just mentioned but also Marsilius, Bartolus and Baldus, Ockham, Wycliff, and the Conciliarists. To provide this in just over 200 pages is no mean feat. Nevertheless, so much interesting work has been published in the last twenty-five years on changing political discourses in the later Middle Ages: Claude Gauvard, Jacques Krynen, Alain Boureau, and Colette Beaune on late medieval French kingship, justice, and sacrality; a flood of studies on late medieval English "civil society" (by Stephen Justice, Richard Firth Green, David Wallace and many others); excellent monographs on Italian urban corporatism and republicanism (John Najemy, James Hankins); Thomas Bisson's masterful discussion of lordship, the non-existence of the medieval state, and the appearance of "politics." If a new book were to discuss later medieval ideas of power, especially the relationship between ideas and realities, I had hoped it would do justice to this new scholarship. Canning does not engage it. Ideas of Power is somewhat old-fashioned.

But there is bad old-fashioned and good old-fashioned. Like Chanel, good old-fashioned never goes out of style. Canning's book is good old-fashioned. By Chapter 4, on Marsilius, I finally began to notice how expertly focused Canning's discussions were, a trait that continues in all his subsequent chapters. This realization allowed me to reread the earlier chapters with greater appreciation for the way Canning presents exactly the information needed to understand his later arguments. The result is an unusually coherent analytic narrative of the ways political theory changed over the course of this long century and why. It is sometimes too abstract, too condensed. One wishes he had used his introduction to tell the reader exactly what to expect, and then provided a first chapter setting out important terms and themes. He might have taken another 100 words to discuss Wycliff's "grace-founded dominium," for if one is not familiar with the literature one will have little idea what the phrase means, let alone how it connects with Canning's themes. Similarly, Augustine's ecclesiology (and its perverse medieval recasting into its near opposite, l'Augustinisme politique) appears quite frequently, and rightly so; but Canning never provides a clear discussion of either Augustine's ecclesiology or its deformation. Still, this is a very useful book. It is also an immensely thoughtful and intelligent one.

Thus, his historically contextualized readings of texts are much more interesting than his introduction's bland statement makes it appear, for Canning has really achieved something quite difficult. There are a number of ways one can deal with texts and authors that have become canonical in the history of late medieval "political theory." One can treat the authors as partisan apologists for particular political stances, which diminishes their philosophical seriousness and importance. One can treat the texts as vehicles of quasi-Hegelian principles, in which case the authors disappear behind a meta- historical clash of ideas. One can treat the texts as contributions to an ongoing elaboration of Western ideas about consent and constitutionalism, reducing them to small bricks in a vast edifice. One can analyze their ideas within the contemporary dialectics of theology and canon and civil law, resulting in overly technical accounts of almost antiquarian flavor. Avoiding all these pitfalls, Canning manages to identify the specific political conjunctures that challenged his authors while describing their theoretical responses in ways that do justice both to the particular historical contexts and the future (and lasting) importance of the authors' theoretical formulations. For example, his discussion of the debate over Franciscan poverty (Chapter 4) is brief but cogent and well-informed; but equally impressive is his success in explaining to readers why a debate over poverty becomes a debate over dominium, and why seemingly arcane distinctions between three different types of dominium in three different ages of humanity were not just sensible but important. His contextualization of Bartolus and Baldus in Chapter 5 is even more astute (not surprisingly, given Canning's past publications). Particularly valuable in this chapter is Canning's awareness that the growing multiplicity of forms of contemporary political organization had brought the traditional analytic categories of the ius civile into disarray. Canning correctly notes (and his willingness to do so is commendable) that the problem is akin to that posed to the 19th- and 20th-century idea of sovereignty by today's supranational political entities like the European Union and transnational economic entities like global corporations. He might have added that the problem of the legitimacy of civic republics and signorie which he so expertly analyzes in Bartolus and Baldus has been and remains equally the problem of new and changing nations and sub-national groups: as John Dunn pointed out long ago, western political theory has still not found a way to reconcile the principle of national sovereignty with the right to self-determination of groups within nations. [1] Equally important, Canning's discussion of Bartolus' and Baldus' attempts to create a coherent framework of analysis for the legitimacy of late medieval political entities is absolutely fundamental to any medieval historian who would try to write a coherent narrative of the period's political institutions in a way that encompasses kingdoms and cities without privileging either as normative.

Canning is extremely good at briefly explaining the rationale for Ockham's nominalist rejection of conciliarism and the conciliarists' embrace of corporatism. In doing so, he also incidentally explains why nominalism and corporatism were supremely important ideas in the history of political thought. Although he does not dwell on Aristotle's influence (indeed, a recurring theme is the contrasting importance of Augustine), his discussions still make it clear why the Aristotelian axiom of humanity's naturally political nature was so attractive in the period, and how and why it came to be grafted repeatedly onto accounts of pre-lapsarian political institutions (making government a good-in-itself, whether Christian, pre-Christian, or non-Christian, and underpinning criticisms of papal government as rooted in post-lapserian positive law). His recurring discussions of plenitudo potestatis are again brief yet illuminating, each discussion building on the preceding ones, all together allowing readers to gain a sense for why a technical term could become so important. And his questions are always forthright. When they deal with political entities, he asks, are his authors describing what we can call "states," and can we say that these "states" possessed "sovereignty"? Canning affirms that we can, precisely because theorists used corporate analysis to imagine entities that had existence, identity, and agency apart from their members, and they saw these entities wielding full legislative and executive powers. His contrasting discussions of such problems in the cases of Baldus and the radical conciliarists of the Council of Basel is stimulating, as is his willingness to end his last chapter with the blunt question, "Why should ultimate authority lie with the people?" (190). That Canning makes this question make sense is proof of his success in elucidating the core problems of late medieval political theory.



1. John Dunn, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

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Geoffrey Koziol

University of California, Berkeley