sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 11

David Napolitano / Kenneth J. Pennington (eds.): A Cultural History of Democracy in the Medieval Age

Democracy is an odd form of government and has never fully lived up to its potentials because people either do not engage sufficiently in the political process and simply refuse to vote, or because corruption and abuse dominate politics making the electorate frustrated and disenchanted. On the one hand, there is the desire to give people equality and the liberty to participate in the government of their community, territory, or country. On the other, there is the clear realization that the masses of voters are disinterested, uninformed, or ignorant. In short, as much as our ideal of democracy has spread throughout the world over the last two hundred years or so, the reality looks quite different.

Nevertheless, democracy is here to stay with us, and we should be more optimistic in our thinking about this political system with its division into the three branches of government. By the same token, it is worth exploring what we know about early forms of democratic movements, even in the Middle Ages, which most people would deem to be an absurd notion to begin with. The editors of the present volume at first concede that medieval European society was primarily characterized and dominated by the system of a royal ruler under God: "political life was anchored in a fixed and God-given order in the Middle Ages" (7). Both the emperor and the pope exerted virtually absolute power.

However, when we turn to the social conditions on the ground at various periods and political regions in Europe, a rather different impression seems to emerge because throughout that entire period, there were many movements of social unrest, political pushes to challenge the royal or comparable authority, and hence to establish, at least on a local level, primarily in urban centers, new social constructs that facilitated the emergence of new types of social participation in political power. Even some poets and writers reflected on the issues of internecine strife, revolt against the traditional royal dynasty, and the instability of the notion of kingship, such as Rudolf von Ems in his Der guote Gêrhart (ca. 1215-1220), here unfortunately not consulted, and Marsilius of Padua in his various political treatises.

After all, throughout the entire Middle Ages, social authors composed Mirrors for Princes that explicitly signaled that a prince's misbehavior could have devastating consequences for the entire country. We all know of the Magna Carta, 1215, and the contributors to this volume add numerous other sources that shed interesting light on political and social changes particularly in late medieval urban centers. However, despite often quite radical movements - why the Pataria is not even mentioned once seems very strange (see now John A. Dempsey, Bonizo of Sutri, 2023, here not consulted) - the idea of royal dignity and the king's God-given authority did not change anywhere. So, it might be best to talk about democratic stirrings, but not about democracy in the Middle Ages (cf. 13), certainly a catchy but misleading title. It would be important to deconstruct the traditional myth of a king as an absolutist ruler or dictator since he was mostly in no position to exert such power. However, there was an entire political and literary discourse, almost in anticipation of the French Revolution in 1789 on the evil king who did not deserve his position and was to be dethroned. [1]

Kenneth J. Pennington introduces the volume with a study that is ambivalently labeled "Sovereignty" where he outlines throughout most of his study the supreme role of the king. Only at the end does he also turn to the various civic uprisings in the late Middle Ages, particularly in northern Italy (again, the Pataria does not seem to exist), where local leaders, such as capitani, gained considerable influence.

Atria A. Larson reminds us that already in the early Middle Ages, many individuals and entities received certain liberties, or privileges, especially in Italian communes, but also in many other cities across Europe. However, it sounds almost ironic, "Freedom was freedom to be good and not to be enslaved to base passions and sins" (46), which undermines the notion of democratic stirrings altogether. Instead, as she also points out, the rule of law was identified as most crucial, which even bound the king. Jan Dumolyn examines the notion of the 'common good,' i.e., justice and individual freedom within the traditional feudal structures during the medieval times. But the prince was supposed to pursue that goal in the first place, which reconfirms the hierarchical structure.

Peter Hoppenbrouwers reminds us that in economic terms, the late Middle Ages already witnessed a considerable growth of political independence, such as in the urban guilds or the charitable foundations in rural communities. Even the Catholic Church witnessed upheavals and internal challenges, as Joseph Canning emphasizes. I would not correlate the Investiture Contest with democracy in any way, but the emergence of the conciliary movement during the great schism of the Holy See alerts us to some efforts to change the absolutist position of the pope, which failed, however, in the long run.

I am not so sure whether Edward Muir's paper on citizenship and gender really fits in the current volume since he addresses, on the one hand, the establishment of civic laws throughout Europe, and the increasing influence of high-ranking ladies in confraternities. A real outlier seems to be Walter Pohl's study on ethnicity, race, and nationalism in the Middle Ages, which profiles well the many different conflicts medieval society went through already then regarding the tensions between insiders and outsiders. He covers many different aspects from the treatment of 'barbarians' to the relationship between Christians and Jews that all would deserve a book-length study each. But there is no longer any word about democracy.

Jelle Haemers turns her attention to urban rebellions or civil resistance that often resulted in changed social structures. She alerts us, however, to the need to avoid confusions regarding the organization and purposes of those uprises since they were normally specifically intentional and had definite goals. In general, they tended to lead to the creation of "parliamentary institutions" (172), i.e., urban self-governing bodies. However, those did not oppose the function of kings, counts, and other lords, but they demanded accountability, fairness, and justice from them. Dante Fedele considers late medieval discourses regarding just war, and the rise of infantry men in fourteen-century battles who made the involvement of aristocratic cavalry redundant. Fedele is also interested in the concepts of the holy war, amicitia and fidelitas, and finally diplomacy. I do not quite see the relevance of this article for the ultimate goal of this volume.

Finally, Gianluca Raccagni offers a kind of conclusion with his study on the emergence of civic self-administration, especially in the Italian city republics and the Lombard League (the south German imperial cities would have been a necessary addition to his argument), and he also refers to parallel organizations such as the Rhenish League, the Hanseatic League, and the Swiss Confederacy. The volume concludes with the notes for each contribution, the extensive collective bibliography, biographical notes on the contributors, and a subject and name index.

Could we now talk about democratic developments in the Middle Ages. In the narrow sense of the word, certainly not. Did political movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries draw from those medieval sources? I do not think so. But we could accept the various authors' claims that already since the high Middle Ages, the king's authority was fading, giving way to the baronial, ducal, and princely power groups, and to guilds and merchant organizations in cities. However, the royal principle was never abandoned, but people increasingly demanded that the rulers follow the ethical and moral expectations in them, and that they themselves were entitled to early forms of self-government, under the king's authority. Thus, the book's title makes false promises because the social structure did not essentially change despite many new forms of political activities involving the ordinary people both in cities and in villages. The individual articles are consistently well-researched, although some of them do not seem to address the central concern of this volume.


[1] Cf. Albrecht Classen: Evil Kings in the Middle Ages: The Literary Testimony of Huon of Bordeaux, in: Academia: Letters, Dec. 21, 2021, online at:

Rezension über:

David Napolitano / Kenneth J. Pennington (eds.): A Cultural History of Democracy in the Medieval Age. Volume 2, London: Bloomsbury 2021, XII + 261 S., 41 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-3500-4275-9, GBP 75,00

Rezension von:
Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
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Albrecht Classen: Rezension von: David Napolitano / Kenneth J. Pennington (eds.): A Cultural History of Democracy in the Medieval Age. Volume 2, London: Bloomsbury 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 11 [15.11.2023], URL:

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