Arguments for Secular Supremacy. The secular rulers opposed the theory of ecclesiastical supremacy on the grounds that political society was as divine in origin as the church, and that kings, as agents of divine purpose, were responsible to God alone. In spite of St. Augustine’s dissent, most medieval writers, both secular and ecclesiastical, believed that the purpose of the state was ethical, that is, the maintenance of justice and right. It was the means of restraining the sinful passions of men, and in that sense the authority of secular rulers was considered sacred.
The generally accepted theory held that kings ruled by divine right only so far as they carried out this divine purpose of righteousness and justice. The customary law of the Middle Ages was supposed to represent the natural principles of reason, and kings were expected to govern according to the law. The relation of king and people depended upon a mutual agreement, based largely on feudal ideals, to observe the law and to administer and maintain justice. Many medieval writers, however, including some churchmen, taught that kings, responsible to God alone, should be obeyed regardless of whether their conduct was just and lawful.
Scriptural authority was also quoted to support the claim of secular independence. In the Old Testament kings were found to have received the direct sanction of God and to have been instruments in carrying out the divine will. In the New Testament, a text of especial value to the temporal authority was found in the declaration of Paul that the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God.
But the fact that the Biblical writings in general show a distinctly anti-royal bias, and that the historical records and current traditions were the work of priests and monks, placed the supporters of secular authority at a distinct disadvantage in this regard.
Further arguments for the secular authority were made in the eleventh century by German bishops, who were under the control of the emperor and who wished to maintain their independence of papal supremacy. The best support of the imperial claims came, however, with the revived study of Roman law.
Although the knowledge of Roman civil law was never lost in western Europe, and many of its principles were embodied in feudal customs and in the barbarian codes, there had been for centuries no systematic interest in jurisprudence, mainly because of the medieval tendency to treat law as a mass of traditions, imbedded so firmly in popular consciousness that codification or study was unnecessary.
But in the later part of the eleventh century, largely because of the needs of the rising Italian cities, the written code of Justinian was revived, and the systematic study of Roman law was begun at the University of Bologna, spreading thence to France and Spain.
The leading legal writers of the period were Irnerius Accursius, Bartolus, and Baldus. Bartolus, the prince of jurists, affirmed that the emperor was Deu in terris, that his sovereignty was inalienable and that to dispute him was sacrilege.
He made a large contribution to the theory of sovereignty as developed later by Bodin and Crotius. In his distinction between states that recognized a superior and the that did not, he laid the foundation for the conception of a family of independent nations and of international law. He was frequently referred to by later writers on sovereignty and on international affairs.
An avenue of intellectual life was thus provided for many men who formerly had no opportunity except in theology; and laymen, educated in the law, took the place of the former clerical advisers of kings and princes. Men began to think about the principles of legal and political rights. The struggle of kings against their feudal vassals and the efforts of cities to become independent of feudal restrictions were decisively aided by the principles of Roman jurisprudence.
The Roman law was the outgrowth of a highly centralized state and assumed the legislative absolutism of the emperor. Hence imperial claims could be supported by arguments quite different from those of the early medieval period.
In the twelfth century, the lawyers, with the support of Frederick Barbarossa, put forward the claim that the emperors possessed the unbroken imperial power of the Caesars. The authority that the servile Roman jurists had ascribed to their despotic rulers was transferred to the medieval emperor, and was fervently acclaimed by his German and Italian partisans.
The old maxim that what the emperor wills has the force of law was revived and utilized to offset the papal claims. The Roman law taught that the emperor governed the whole civilized world; hence the German emperors claimed independence from ecclesiastical control and superiority over secular rulers.
The culmination of imperial glory was reached in the first half of the thirteenth century under Frederick II, the most remarkable man of his age. He not only maintained the independence of the empire, but aimed to make himself supreme in spiritual as well as temporal affairs. He ignored papal censures and called himself the vicar of God on earth. In spite of the hostile activities of papal agents in all parts of his empire, and of the opposition, fostered by the pope, of selfish German princes and of the Italian cities, Frederick fought to maintain the dignity of the imperial power,
After his death, though, his accomplished were undone by a series of incompetent successors, and his fame was darkened by the church, who accused him of heresies. He had committed the unpardonable crime of making a treaty on just and equal terms with the Sultan of Egypt; and even Dante, who sympathized with his struggle to maintain political independence, felt it necessary to place Frederick II among the faithless in his Inferno.
The kings of the rising national states, France, England, and Spain, also welcomed the aid of the jurists in so far as it strengthened royal authority against the church and the feudal nobles. They opposed, however, the argument that the German emperor, heir of Roman power, possessed any authority over their domains. They were willing in most cases to concede a figurative exaltedness to the emperor, but reserved political power to themselves. This concern for actual power marks one of the beginnings of modern thought.
While the immediate result of the revived Roman theory of the state strengthened the authority of rulers and helped to establish the absolute monarch, the study of Roman law was not wholly unfavorable to the progress of political liberty. Roman jurisprudence taught that the people are the ultimate source of political authority, and this doctrine coincided with the normal conception of the Teutonic peoples that law proceeded from the nation as a whole.
Many of the jurists maintained that the people might at any time resume the authority which they had bestowed upon the emperor, that his legislative functions could be exercised only with the advice of a senate, and that he possessed no unlimited power over the property of his subjects. These ideas reappeared in the democratic doctrines at the close of the medieval period.