The Medieval Review 16.11.39

Schneider, Herbert, ed. Engelbert von Admont, De ortu et fine Romani imperii. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Staatsschriften des späteren Mittelalters, 1.3. Wiesbaden: Harrossowitz Verlag, 2016. pp. xxxviii, 262. $81.00/€60.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-3-447-10082-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Cary J. Nederman
Texas A&M University

The importance of the contribution of Engelbert of Admont for the development of political thought in the fourteenth century has been sadly underappreciated. He merits little or no mention in the standard English-language surveys of medieval political ideas; the same seems to be largely true for other general treatments in all of the major European languages (although I admit that my sampling of the latter was relatively small). This is despite the fact that Engelbert composed both a mirror of princes (although admittedly reliant on Giles of Rome's widely circulated De regimine principum) and a treatise on the foundations of the Roman Empire. The latter, in particular--a work dating to the early 1300s, entitled De ortu et fine Romani imperii--was at the forefront of a genre of political writing that would persist for several centuries. Certainly, a few scholars--G. B. Fowler in an earlier generation, Karl Ubl more recently--have made a concerted effort to resuscitate Engelbert's reputation as a political theorist worthy of serious consideration. But their efforts do not seem to have made much impact.

Why might it be the case that Engelbert is so neglected? In my view, there are at least three plausible, but not mutually exclusive, explanations that may be offered. The first is the purely technical problem posed by the inaccessibility of a reliable version of the text. The De ortu et fine Romani imperii was printed several times during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not at all thereafter. Thus, when, in 1988, Wilhelm Baum and his collaborators produced a German translation with facing Latin, they relied upon a 1610 edition. Likewise, the English translation by Thomas M. Izbicki and the present reviewer, published in 2000, was based on the text found in the famous 1614 Goldast collection of medieval political writings. It goes without saying the critical edition of De ortu et fine Romani imperii under review remedies this unfortunate circumstance once and for all. For this reason, if for no other, historians of the political theories of the Latin Middle Ages owe significant debt to Schneider et al.

A second reason for the ordinary lack of familiarity on the part of scholars with the De ortu et fine Romani imperii is its overshadowing by a roughly contemporaneous text on the topic of the Roman Empire composed by an author revered in his own time as well as today, namely, the Monarchia by Dante. In the standard narrative of the history of later medieval political thought, the Monarchia is almost always accorded pride of place in discussions of the persistence of imperial ideas of universal government. Yet the Monarchia is a quirky treatise, to say the very least. It was certainly read and commented on--as well as condemned as heterodox--but it inspired no imitators, perhaps because to adopt or adapt its arguments was to invite ecclesiastical sanctions. By contrast, Engelbert's tract was never suspected of harboring heretical doctrines; it not only found a wide readership, but key elements of its arguments also appeared in the writings of later defenders of the universal authority of the Roman Emperor, as Schneider demonstrates in his Introduction (105-114).

In my view, the third factor that explains the absence of attention devoted to De ortu et fine Romani imperii is the very nature of its topic. Given the emergence of territorial kingdoms in Northern Europe, as well as urban communes and signories in Italy that claimed autonomy, Engelbert's promotion, indeed glorification, of the imperial majesty might seem out of step with the times, if not entirely anachronistic. In spite of the reputation that his thought has acquired, however, his position in De ortu et fine Romani imperii is considerably more nuanced. Engelbert adopts a practical and balanced perspective on empire. He acknowledges that differences among various localized political groupings reflect natural, cultural, linguistic, and geographic diversity. But he points out that such diversity inevitably produces competition, conflict, discord, and ultimately warfare. The disturbance of the peace and spread of injustice resulting from a national or otherwise regional organization of political institutions thus violates the very purposes for which government was created. By contrast, the presence of a unitary global regime eliminates intranquility and promotes an established system of justice and rectification. Engelbert carefully considers the counterarguments favoring the emerging territorial-based order in Europe, yet finally refutes them as incongruent with the telos of politics itself. The De ortu et fine Romani imperii provides a compendium of the modes of discourse and argumentation that swirled around the Roman Empire during the Late Middle Ages. Engelbert's tract takes seriously the challenge to imperial rule posed by the emerging grid of European nation-states and city-republics, and it responds to these developments with vigor and care.

As one might expect, the critical apparatus contained in the volume is superb. I have not examined directly any of the manuscripts on the basis of which Schneider constructs his stemma, but I find his rationale to be convincing. The Introduction does an excellent job of providing a thorough manuscript census, in addition to offering a useful survey of the current state of the scholarly literature on Engelbert's political ideas. In sum, Schneider's edition constitutes an impressive accomplishment for which I, as a scholar who will be consulting it regularly, am deeply grateful.

Copyright (c) 2016 Cary J. Nederman

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