Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustration of Canto XII from Dante’s Inferno, depicting tyrants submerged in a river of boiling blood
The medieval period was obsessed with notions of kingship and tyranny. Writers from across western Europe, in both Latin and vernacular languages, interrogated concepts of legitimate leadership across a great variety of forms and genres. The ‘Mirror for Princes’ genre was one of the most well-known (and most direct) forms of such interrogations. Examples of this genre – emerging from as early at the ninth century – typically offered actual or imaginary leaders advice on the conduct of kings, often through forms of historical, legendary and biblical exempla. The great histories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries similarly could employ examples of the reigns of former kings as mirrors to their own times, often using the obliqueness of time to both codify and conceal contemporary political commentaries. Those same centuries saw the flourishing of a new body of political treatises that would address kingship in even more direct fashion, including such works as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1160) and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno (1267), which we will read this month.
Medieval notions of kingship and tyranny were influenced by a vast, and ever-growing, spectrum of texts, including the Bible, the works of Augustine, classical and contemporary histories, and the works of classical philosophers, such as Cicero and Aristotle. These political theories wove together divergent currents of thought that were both ancient and modern, attempting to reconcile theological discourses with philosophical concepts of natural law and the all-important question of tyrannicide. Moreover, they were also written for a wide spectrum of audiences, dedicated to Kings, Chancellors, and Archbishops, and read at both European courts and the Papal curia. The breadth of this readership meant that the didacticism inherent in any work on kingship must be carefully moderated and modulated in accordance with the demands of those leaders. Furthermore, the fascination with legitimate kingship and its tyrannical (but not altogether indistinguishable) other extended beyond the philosophical treatise, textbook and Latin history, and the genres of romance, fable and hagiography, among others, would frequently interrogate and dramatize notions of correct leadership, political legitimacy, usurpation and tyrannicide.
The Intellectual History of Tyranny
The word ‘tyrant’ originally derives from the Greek word ‘tyrannos’ (τύραννος), meaning ‘monarch’ or ‘leader of a polis’. In its earliest-recorded context, the term signified a authoritarian ruler, free of negative or illegitimate connotations. It was not until around the fifth century BCE that a distinction arose between a legitimate ruler, who ruled with the support of government and a tyrant, who did not. The first major interrogation of tyranny was conducted by Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BCE), who argued that, just as subjects had a duty to obey the laws, the ruler had a duty to ensure that laws were made honestly and with legitimate reason. Once one of these precepts were violated, the ruler was deemed a tyrant and the contract between polis and ruler was broken. This left subjects free to break the law in the service of the common good and, in certain situations, justified tyrannicide.
This view was broadly corroborated and expanded by later classical intellectuals, including Plato (c. 428 – c. 347), Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) and Cicero (106 – 43 BCE). However, despite the post-Classical importance and prevalence of both Platonism and Neoplatonism, very few of either Plato’s or Aristotle’s works were available in the Middle Ages. As a result, the structuralist conception of government laid out in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic was glimpsed only through the works of Cicero, whose own De re publica was written in imitation of Plato’s great work and, emerging later still, through the works of Aristotle.
In contrast to the relatively clear-cut and homogenous attitude to tyranny (and, indeed, tyrannicide) evidenced by Classical philosophers, these theories became complicated with the emergence of Christianity, and especially the Church’s prohibition on murder. For instance, despite his familiarity with the works of Cicero and Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) wrote nothing that could properly be termed political theory. As a result, both medieval and modern scholars have tended to extrapolate theories of statesmanship, kingship and tyranny from arguments on legitimate rule in a bid to construct something akin to an Augustinian theory on tyrannicide. These arguments have typically centred on Book XIX of his City of God. In Chapter 14 of that book, Augustine establishes a broad framework for the relationship between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’, arguing that ‘those who care for the rest rule (the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants); and they who are cared for obey (the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters)’ (City of God, XIX, 14). Although Augustine argues that slavery itself (in this interpretation analogous to the subjects of a ruler or tyrant) is only possible in a postlapsarian world, he argues that it must be tolerated because:
the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, that they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness passes away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all. (City of God, XIX, 15)
This passage, read in this interpretive framework, has been broadly interpreted as Augustine’s belief that a tyrant, or unjust ruler, must be tolerated in this world because anything temporal is secondary to eternal life.
As a result, whilst tyranny remained a discourse that was both available to and utilised by medieval writers and historians, it would not become the subject of interrogation or theorisation in the Latin Middle Ages until 1159, when John of Salisbury (c. 1120 – 1180), one of the most important figures of the twelfth-century renaissance, completed his Policraticus – a political treatise dedicated to then-Chancellor Thomas Becket. A long, wide-ranging work that covers such issues as the body politic, kingship, contemporary history, the vices of the court and contains a sustained attack on flatterers, the Policraticus is most famous for its defence of tyrannicide. John’s is a powerful and comprehensive theory of tyranny, arguing that there are different types of tyrant: private tyrants, ecclesiastical tyrants and monarchical tyrants.
Whilst the Policraticus had a relatively small reach in the years following its completion, by the thirteenth century its influence was so wide that Frédérique Lachaud has rightly defined the text as ‘a cultural phenomenon’. The full text survives in 60 manuscripts, and many more in abbreviated forms. More broadly, it was summarised, paraphrased, quoted, and even directly plagiarised, throughout the coming centuries and influenced the work of many twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians, legalists, historiographers and poets, including: Peter of Blois (c. 1130 – c. 1211), Nigel Longchamp (d. 1200), the anonymous author of The Song of Lewes (1264), and Henry of Bracton (d. 1268), author of an extensive treatise on common law. It continued to be of influence in the early modern period, being printed at least twice in the sixteenth century (Paris, 1513; Leiden, 1593), and was almost certainly known to Ben Jonson who drew much material from it in Timber.
By the thirteenth century, however, the intellectual world was being revolutionised again by the mass translation of the works of Aristotle, including the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. These translations, and the commentaries that soon followed, galvanised intellectual – and, consequently, political – thought and life; many of the men responsible went on to write significant commentaries on tyranny, applying the structural analyses of Aristotle to their own political circumstances. Robert Grosseteste, the influential Bishop of Lincoln, was responsible for the first extant Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics and notably sent an abbreviatio of his memorandum on tyranny to Simon de Montfort in May 1250. However, it was the Dominican Friar, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who truly epitomised and championed the synthesisation of Aristotelian thought with the principles of Christianity.
Aquinas’ theories of kingship and the construction of society are based largely on Aristotle’s own distinctions (Monarchy, Autocracy/Tyranny, Aristocracy, Democracy, Oligarchy). Drawing, again, on the works of Aristotle, Aquinas argues that man is an inherently social and political creature. Unlike animals, which are each equipped with the necessary senses and instincts to survive entirely alone, man, he argues, is equipped with the reason necessary to gain knowledge, materials, aid and services from others better suited to each task than himself. This necessitates the existence of a collective, which, he argues, must be governed and led – preferably, as we will see, by a single individual. This Aristotelian and structuralist conception of society is the principal framework for his theories of both kingship and tyranny. Although Aquinas addresses these themes in a number of his works, including his Commentary on the Sentences (1252-56), and Summa Theologiae (1265-74), it receives its most extensive and exclusive treatment in the De regno (1267). This was Aquinas’ longest exclusively political work and was originally intended for Hugh II of Lusignan, King of Cyprus. However, following the intended recipient’s death in 1267, Aquinas abandoned the work, completing only the first Book and the first six chapters of Book Two. The work was taken up and completed by Tolommeo of Luca.
Today we are reading extracts from John of Salisbury’s Policraticus and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno to interrogate how political thought on both kingship and tyranny evolved over the course of the Middle Ages.
Questions/Topics for Consideration:
- How do these texts present a) kingship and b) tyranny? To what extent are the two constructions inter-reliant and interrelated? How do these constructions vary between texts?
- To what extent are these texts similar? Different? What are the effects and meanings of these similarities and differences?
- How do these texts negotiate authority – whether secular, religious, textual, patristic?
- What do they mean for contemporary kingship and constructions of kingship?
- As texts fundamentally to do with power, how does the nature of the dialectic between text and power function in each source?
- How political are the texts themselves?
- Thinking of your own research and what you know of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century contexts of these texts, how do their theories (and the repercussion of those theories) impact or reflect broader societal and literary concerns?
- How do these texts make use of their authorities both implicitly and explicitly?
 Frédérique Lachaud, ‘The Medieval Afterlife of the Policraticus’, in A Companion to John of Salisbury, ed. by Christophe Grelland and Frédérique Lachaud (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 377-438 (p. 377).