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Political Thought in Europe: 1250-1450.

Antony Black. (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. xii + 211 pp. $49-95 cloth; $14-95 paper.

These two recent books from Cambridge University Press are complementary treatments of the European political tradition, though with markedly different emphases. Both of them stress the role of language, but with a contrasting notion of how language functions in political thought. To Black, language and vocabulary are more important for the development of ideas than are the structures or doctrines which they once framed. Hence distinct political languages might be replicated over generations without necessarily communicating all of the peculiarities of their ultimate authors' thought. By taking this position, Black places himself in direct, explicit opposition to his master Walter Ullmann, who argued passionately that the use of the terms of particular authors entailed the adoption of the doctrine which went with them. Black goes on to enumerate five specific languages (would some others say "discourses"?), identified as theological, native, academic juristic, Ciceronian and Aristotelian. He stresses the concrete, specifically national and historical context of arguments often read today as abstract dissertations. The theoretical constructs of Marsilio of Padua or William of Ockham, for example, can only be understood as expressions of the political situation arising from the conflicts between John XXII and Louis of Bavaria, expressed in the intellectual language at hand. The doctrinal positions of "Bracton," Sir John Fortescue or Nicolas Oresme are so specific to the traditions of either France or England as to be incomprehensible to anyone from another tradition.

Although Black does see a general evolution over the two hundred years he encompasses, he is telling not one story but several. The result is that his narrative is divided into topics such as "Church and state," "Empire and nation," "City-states and civic government" and "Parliamentary representation." The culmination is in the conciliar movement, since its failure is also that of medieval estate institutions, leaving the state and its ruler the principal integrative element in European legal thought by default.

Black's approach is consciously polynational, and his greatest strength is his awareness of the rough fit between institutions and ideas to support them, as he already demonstrated so well in his Guilds and Civil Society (1984). As in that previous book, Black is often more interested in what is missing than in what is there, and he remarks particularly on the lack of a secular theory of representation, since most "corporatist" theories so dear to theorists of the thirties were wish-projections of rightist political movements of those times. By implication, he rejects the perhaps anachronistic linguistic structuralism of Otto Brunner in Land and Lordship (a work which certainly arose in a fascist/national Socialist context), who argued from the late-medieval charter and chronicle language that the estate assembly "is" the community, virtually a corpus mysticum in Ernst Kantorowicz's terms (The King's Two Bodies), and constructed a secular theory of representation from that. Black's book is an excellent, broad introduction to the subject on a European basis, and it is to be recommended to any serious student.

In contrast to Black, Viroli sees language as something arising from doctrine and expressing distinct, "architectural" concepts. The first chapter deals specifically with "The Acquisition of the Language of Politics." Viroli concentrates on a single strand of the European story, though a very rich one: his focus is utterly Italian, primarily Florentine, and his story has its single narrative thread in the development and decay of a discipline called "politics" (in a spectrum including monistics, ethics and economics--in the sense of Otto Brunner's Adeliges Landleben und europaischer Geist). This "politics" was an ethically-charged, idealistic discipline tied closely to the fortunes of the urban republics which jostled about on the Italian peninsula in the high Middle Ages. Within their boundaries, one was expected to vivere politice, to "live politically," which was to live in an orderly commonwealth with other citizens. In constant contrast to the republic was the state (lo stato), which was defined from a different perspective than those we find in the works of either Gaines Post or Kantorowicz. The state was an entity which operated mechanically on subjects rather than citizens, and which existed in the realm of necessity rather than ethics. The Italian city-state thought of itself as a republic at home, Viroli argues, but as a state in its dealings with its contado and with the outside world. The state was administered by republics through bureaucracies as late as the early sixteenth century, but the bureaucracies active there did not have any power within the gates of the ruling city. In time, "statecraft" came to supplant "politics," which had been the ideology of a decaying republican tradition. During the transitional period of the high Renaissance, Viroli argues, the two disciplines existed alongside one another, sometimes coexisting in the same author. In the end, in the mid-sixteenth century, the old discipline of "politics" was replaced by statecraft, which became the "new politics." This replicated the disappearance of the true republic into the signoria of princes, and lo stato was brought back home within the walls, to bolster a corporate sovereignty in which everyone but the prince was a subject, and there were no longer any citizens in the old sense. As in so many other things, Machiavelli was a transitional figure who faced up to the fact that the practitioners of good statecraft, unlike the practitioners of good politics, would in all likelihood go to hell (what a contrast with Cicero's Scipio!). In the end, even the republic had to be defended by means which inevitably transformed it into a "state" absolved of moral content.

In the concluding chapter, Viroli faces the contemporary implications of what he has reviewed by considering the confrontation of communitarian and individualist ideas. He asserts that communitarianism is under the impression that all civil communities deserve the blood and sacrifice of individual members. The story of the death of republicanism in the Italian Renaissance, he appears to say, shows that there are states which are not worth the bones of a single man or woman and cannot assert the moral authority inherent only in a true republic.

These two books have quite distinct focuses, though they certainly overlap in interesting ways. Black concentrates on the medieval political tradition in the whole of Europe, and his termination in the mid-fifteenth century means he remains more interested in scholastics and publicists than in humanists. If he had continued his story into the sixteenth century, he would have had to incorporate not only Italian humanists but also Spanish neo-scholastics. Viroli's concentration on Italy becomes rather myopic, though he does include some scholastic thinkers from outside the "mainline" humanist tradition (most notably Thomas Aquinas). In a few points where they do overlap, they correct details in one another. Viroll, for example, has a much more nuanced understanding of the text De regimine principum, by Thomas Aquinas and Ptolemy of Lucca, than does Black. The Viroll book suffers from consistently poor editing and proofreading, with some occasionally unnecessary lapses into the Italianate forms of names. Both of the books, but particularly that of Viroli, might have benefited from using the concept of political theory as the ideology of a particular social or political interest.
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Author:Rowan, Steven
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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