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Empire and the Historiography of European Political Thought:

Marsiglio of Padua, Nicholas of Cusa, and the

Medieval/Modern Divide

Cary J. Nederman

Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 66, Number 1, January 2005, pp. 1-15

Published by University of Pennsylvania Press


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Empire and the Historiography of
European Political Thought:
Marsiglio of Padua,
Nicholas of Cusa, and
the Medieval/Modern Divide

Cary J. Nederman

When did the Middle Ages end and modernity (or at any rate, early moder-
nity) begin? For the historian of political thought, no question about periodization
probably evokes more controversy or is more provocative than this one. Some
recent scholars, in effect, respond: Never! The long shadow cast by the mid-
twentieth-century Cambridge historian Walter Ullmann—still surprisingly vis-
ible, despite his supposedly waning influence—may perhaps be detected in
this trend.1 A teacher of or inspiration for many currently eminent historians of
political thought, Ullmann notoriously went to great pains to filter out of his
version of the history of political ideas reference to texts or doctrines that in-
conveniently revealed elements of discontinuity between late medieval and
early modern modes of thought.
Several of Ullmann’s successors have adopted an even more extreme ver-
sion of this historiography. Consider Brian Tierney’s comment in the conclu-
sion to his Wiles Lectures concerning the epoch between 1150 and 1650:

The period we have been discussing is one of significant change in

almost every sphere of activity. Arts changed, and architecture—and
artillery. Science changed, and society. New theologies appeared, and
new ways of economic life. Astronomers discovered a new heaven,
and explorers a New World. But through this all, improbably, patterns
of constitutional theory persisted that had originally grown out of the

See Cary J. Nederman, “What is Dead and What is Living in the Scholarship of Walter
Ullmann,” Pensiero Politico Medievale, 2 (2004), 1-8.
Copyright 2005 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc.

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2 Cary J. Nederman

structure of medieval society and the encounter of medieval Christian

intellectuals with the secular thought of Greece and Rome.2

Likewise, J. H. Burns introduced the Cambridge History of Political Thought

1450-1700 by highlighting a pronounced current trend in scholarship toward
the “softening” of the differentiation between “medieval” and “early modern”:
“... the period from the late fifteenth century to the end of the seventeenth saw
neither innovation nor even the unfolding of what had been implicit or latent,
but rather the fuller and faster development of tendencies already explicitly
present and manifest in late medieval society.”3 These views crystallized for a
wider audience of political theorists in Quentin Skinner’s influential two-vol-
ume text The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, a central claim of
which was that between “the late thirteenth century, and ... the end of the
sixteenth,... the main elements of a recognisably modern concept of the State
were gradually acquired.”4 In sum, one finds remarkably broad agreement among
many prominent historians that, in matters of political thought at least, the
changes separating medieval from modern patterns of thought were largely
cosmetic and unworthy of sustained analysis. Constitutionalism, natural rights,
sovereignty—each of these supposedly modern doctrines has been traced to
medieval origins in recent scholarly literature.5
A few current scholars, however, remain unconvinced by the advocates of
unremitting continuity. One of these, and perhaps the best known, is John
Pocock.6 In his magisterial opus, The Machiavellian Moment, Pocock demon-
strated precious little patience with the positing of any persisting structure of
political thought—in general, and especially in Florence—before and after
c.1400. Thus, “fourteenth century minds visualized Florentine citizenship in a
context of universal order and authority, which could be both hierarchically
and apocalyptically expressed.”7 A century later, by contrast, “to affirm the
republic ... was to break up a timeless continuity of the hierarchical universe.”8
Pocock’s conscious inspiration for his argument was the so-called “civic hu-

Brian Tierney, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650 (Cam-
bridge, 1982), 105 (emphasis mine).
J. H. Burns, “Introduction,” The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed.
Burns with Mark Goldie (Cambridge, 1991), 2, 3.
Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (2 vols.; Cambridge,
1978), I, ix.
See Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights (Atlanta, 1997); Kenneth Pennington, The
Prince and the Law, 1200-1600 (Berkeley, 1993); and Francis Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradi-
tion: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford, 2003).
See also Constantin Fasolt, The Limits of History (Chicago, 2004).
J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic
Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975), 50.
Ibid., 53.

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 3

manist” thesis associated with the name of Hans Baron.9 Baron famously, if not
uncontroversially, asserted that the political crisis of Florentine governance in
1402 generated a rapid transformation of thought and practice that swept
throughout Europe and fundamentally altered the terms of public discourse.10
Baron’s argument entailed, then, the postulation of a profound break between
early modern and medieval conceptions of politics and the nature of political
life—in particular, concerning the active character of citizenship—to which
Pocock more or less wholly subscribed.
In a sense Pocock has returned to the postulation of historical and historio-
graphical discontinuity in the third and latest installment (titled The First De-
cline and Fall) of Barbarism and Civilization, the grand work that has mainly
occupied him for the last three decades.11 Pocock’s principal historiographical
project in the volume is the demonstration that the “Decline and Fall” trope
highlighted by Gibbon reflects a clearcut Renaissance invention arising from
the innovations (or perhaps renovations) of the Florentine civic humanist circle.
Pocock himself repeatedly invokes this claim in Part III (154-55) as well as
Part II (128-29) of The First Decline and Fall in order to identify “Decline and
Fall” as a standard for delineating “medieval political thought” from succeed-
ing modes of engaging in the enterprise of political theory. His major evidence
favoring this distinction is the widespread appropriation and application of the
theme of translatio imperii in the late classical and medieval periods, that is,
the notion of an unbroken continuity between past and present forms of univer-
sal human governance connected with Roman rule and its association with the
Respublica Christiana (98-100). In turn the postulation of a persisting link
between past and present mediated through a universal political institution was
replaced during the Renaissance by Decline and Fall, which viewed the Em-
pire as one more system of governance existing in time that follows a “natural”
pattern of change and eventual death. Thus, more explicitly than in his previ-
ous writings Pocock seeks in The First Decline and Fall to explicate the intel-
lectual differences between medieval and modern times that exemplify the great
divide inherited from Baron.
Adapting this approach to the wider historiographical field posed by the
medieval/modern distinction is a timely and useful one. Indeed, I share Pocock’s
evident suspicion that the continuities between medieval and early modern po-
litical thought have been overplayed in the hands of recent scholars (who have
been labeled neo-Figgisites12), including those cited in the first paragraph of

Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, 55-58.
See James Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism (Cambridge, 2000).
J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, III: The First Decline and Fall (Cambridge,
See Cary J. Nederman, “Constitutionalism—Medieval and Modern: Against Neo-Figgisite
Orthodoxy (Again),” History of Political Thought, 17 (1996), 179-94.

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4 Cary J. Nederman

the present essay, who render the categories of “medieval” and “modern” for
all intents and purposes meaningless when it comes to the analysis of the his-
tory of European political thought. In The First Decline and Fall, Pocock of-
fers compelling evidence that the “all-continuity-all-the-time” position is over-
drawn: medieval thinkers did see themselves as direct heirs to the Roman Em-
pire—hence, the widespread use of the translatio imperii theme—in a way that
at least some Renaissance thinkers (the important ones for Pocock) did not.
Pocock’s argument seems to me to swing the pendulum somewhat too far
in the other direction, however, by apparently recalling the specter of an Iron
Curtain between the “backward looking” medieval point of view (literally, hence
the obsession with the Empire) and the accomplishments of the Renaissance
civic republicans in introducing the new Decline and Fall perspective. He ad-
mits that, as a matter of historical record, “the translatio died hard if it died at
all, and persisted alongside many of the writings we shall consider as making a
transition to Decline and Fall” (144).13 Likewise, Pocock directly challenges
scholars who have found evidence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of
important republican themes that he and Baron identify specifically and ini-
tially in European history with “the Florentine humanism of the quattrocento
and cinquecento” (144). Looking backwards to Brunetto Latini, Ptolemy of
Lucca, and that supposed arch-republican Marsiglio of Padua, Pocock discov-
ers in all of them an abiding devotion to translatio imperii that in his view
comports ill with the robust republicanism (and connected introduction of De-
cline and Fall) of Bruni and company.
In what follows I propose to challenge the conceptual clarity and historical
accuracy of Pocock’s scheme. I examine textual evidence in order to offer rea-
sons why Pocock’s narrative concerning imperialism and republicanism re-
quires further elaboration in recognition of the complexity of the issues he
investigates. First, his employment of Marsiglio of Padua’s De translatione
Imperii without reference to the Defensor Pacis, of which it is explicitly de-
rivative, skews the meaning of Marsiglio’s specific use of that theme, in par-
ticular by imputing to it an unwarranted universalism. Second, fifteenth-cen-
tury thinkers who continued to employ the translatio imperii construct often
drew from it conclusions that were widely at variance with those that Pocock
believes to be central to the discourse. I illustrate this claim with reference to
Nicholas of Cusa’s De concordantia catholica. I conclude that Pocock’s strict
conceptual division between translatio imperii and Decline and Fall models
has an a priori character that often does not fit texts to which it should in prin-
ciple apply. In closing, I offer some attenuated reflections on why the limita-

Citing Thomas Izbicki and Cary J Nederman (eds.), Three Tracts on Empire (Bristol,
2000). See Werner Goez, Translatio Imperii: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Geschichtsdenkens
und der politischen Theorien im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit (Tübingen, 1958).

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 5

tions of Pocock’s argument matter to the more general historiography of Euro-

pean political thought.

Marsiglio of Padua

Pocock places the theme of “universality” at the core of the translatio im-
perii perspective, whether in its imperialist or its papalist instantiations: “The
myth of the Roman empire, translated, universal and persisting to the end of
time, was still a necessary component of Latin Christian discourse” (145). Thus,
Marsiglio of Padua, writing in the 1320s in support of the cause of Ludwig of
Bavaria, king of the Germans and pretender to the imperial throne, found it
necessary to compose a treatise De translatione Imperii in order to bolster the
German’s cause against the papacy. The circumstances of Marsiglio’s involve-
ment with Ludwig should be mentioned here, particularly because some facts
are stated incorrectly in Pocock’s brief account of the historical background to
the treatise (145-46). (For instance, Pocock misstates that the date of Ludwig’s
expedition to Rome was 1327-28; it could not have been 1323, since Marsiglio
was still in Paris and had not yet completed his mater opus, the Defensor Pacis,
which was finished 24 June 1324.) Marsiglio probably wrote the De translatione
Imperii almost immediately after completing the Defensor Pacis, in the second
half of 1324 or 1325, when he was still resident in Paris. A thorough re-exami-
nation of the sources by the German historian Frank Godthardt has profoundly
altered what we know about the circumstances of Marsiglio’s departure from
Paris. There is no evidence that Marsiglio was hounded or subjected to any
charges on the basis of his authorship, which, despite common myth, was hardly
anonymous, since he peppers it with unmistakable references to himself (“son
of Antenor”) and to his known associates (Matteo Visconti). Rather, when
Marsiglio and his colleague John of Jandun departed Paris and took up resi-
dence with Ludwig, to whom the Defensor Pacis had been dedicated, there was
no panicked “flight,” no hint of danger. The best evidence points to a planned
and calculated decision to enter the service of Ludwig, an event which prob-
ably occurred around the time Marsiglio was writing De translatione Imperii,
and not 1326, the date universally ascribed in present scholarship. Even with
this departure, there seems to have been no hue and cry about the heretical
character of Marsiglio’s book, no immediate change in the eyes of the church.14
Given this highly charged political context, Pocock is correct to note that
Marsiglio had no intent to engage in historical writing in a later sense (150).
The treatise is pure polemic, a work meant to counter the standard claim (found

See Frank Godthardt, “Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun at the Court of King
Ludwig of Bavaria: Exile or Destination?,” presented at the International Medieval Congress,
Leeds, 2002.

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6 Cary J. Nederman

in an analogous treatise composed in 1324 by Landolfo Colonna, among many

other sources) that the pope possessed sole authority for bestowing imperial
rights and that he could translate the empire to whomsoever he wished.15 But
this does not answer the question that is salient for Pocock: is Marsiglio work-
ing within the bounds of “the myth of the Roman empire [as] translated, uni-
versal and persisting to the end of time”? I suggest that Marsiglio has already
stepped outside of this paradigm. While Marsiglio’s intent is not historical ob-
jectivity, he does evince a rudimentary historical consciousness about the con-
tingency of empire. This is revealed in the complete absence of “Latin Chris-
tian discourse” in Chapter 1 of De translatione Imperii: there is not a hint of
divine ordination in his account of either the early history of or the worldwide
dominion exercised by Rome. Indeed, Marsiglio is perfectly aware that the
Roman Empire exists in a double sense, connoting both the localized authority
of the emperors over the city of Rome and the “monarchy over the whole world,
or at any rate over the majority of the provinces, such as was the government
and city of Rome as these emerged.”16 In a lengthy passage Marsiglio proposes
that the “magnificent achievements” of the Romans in conquering their vast
empire during the Republican era resulted from a combination of “human for-
titude and luck.”17 No explanation is given of why the republic gave way to the
imperial monarchy at the time of Augustus, but it is clear from Marsiglio’s
comments about Julius Caesar that he assumes a transformation from Roman
“empire” in the first to the second sense occurred only in the time of Octavian
(Julius Caesar being identified as a usurper of legitimate republican govern-
ment). The moment at which many medieval Christians both before and after
Marsiglio would cite the coincidence of Augustus and Jesus is elided in De
translatione Imperii; the shift to Empire in the second sense is simply taken
without comment as historical occurrence.
Such non-supernaturalistic historicism reinforces the impression one re-
ceives from Marsiglio’s other writings that he regards the Empire as a wholly
contingent (and perhaps not entirely desirable) political entity. In the Defensor
Pacis, to which De translatione Imperii is simply an auxiliary appendage, there
is no comparable translatio imperii account. Likewise, in Marsiglio’s later
Defensor minor (1340), a work that is explicitly concerned with the authority
of the Roman emperor, he makes no bow to the translatio imperii theme, treat-
ing imperial power instead as entirely consonant with the Defensor Pacis’s
theory of popular consent as the single legitimate foundation of government.

See the “Introduction” to Marsiglio of Padua, Writings on the Empire, ed. Cary J. Nederman
(Cambridge, 1993), xi-xiii; original Latin text in Colette Jeudy and Jeannine Quillet (eds.), Marsile
de Padoue: Oeuvres Mineures (Paris, 1979).
Marsiglio, Writings on the Empire, 66.
Ibid., 67.

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 7

Indeed, the German empire in the Defensor minor becomes a kind of test case
for the application of Marsiglio’s “generic” theory of the legitimate basis of
rulership.18 His only general comment on the question of the universality and
necessity of world empire comes in Chapter 18 of the first discourse of the
Defensor Pacis as an aside:

As to whether it is advantageous to have one supreme government in

number for all those who live a civil life in the whole world, or whether
on the contrary it is at certain time advantageous to have different such
governments in different regions of the world which are almost neces-
sarily separate from one another in place, and especially for men who
use different languages and who differ widely in morals and customs—
this question merits a reasoned study, but it is distinct from our present
concern. The heavenly cause moves perhaps toward the latter alterna-
tive, in order that the procreation of men might not become excessive.
One might perhaps think that nature, by means of wars and epidemics,
has moderated the procreation of men and other animals in order that
the earth may suffice for their nurture; wherein those who say that
there is eternal generation would be very strongly upheld.19

This is a remarkable paragraph for many reasons, hinting at the depths of

Marsiglio’s knowledge as a physician and natural philosopher. For our pur-
poses, he evinces a studied skepticism about the universalistic and supernatu-
ral bases of the Roman Empire; indeed, he finds “heavenly causes” to point
away from universal monarchy of any sort.
To maintain, then, that Marsiglio’s recounting of the transfer of the empire
in De translatione Imperii betokens his acceptance of the mythology of “Latin
Christian discourse” seems to me to be unsustainable. Rather, the appeal to
translatio imperii strikes me as yet another instance of Marsiglio’s remarkable
ability to speak many different political, theological, and philosophical “lan-
guages” as the rhetorical situation and political agenda dictate.20 Pocock may
well be right that many other apparent republicans of the later Middle Ages did
not break with the assumptions built into translatio imperii; I do not think that
he has grounds to say this about Marsiglio.

See Cary J. Nederman, “From Defensor Pacis to Defensor Minor: The Problem of Em-
pire in Marsiglio of Padua,” History of Political Thought, 16 (1995), 313-29.
Marsiglio of Padua, The Defensor of Peace, tr. Alan Gewirth, with an afterword and
updated bibliography by Cary J. Nederman (New York, 2001), 84-85.
See Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1550 (Cambridge, 1992), 7-13.

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8 Cary J. Nederman

Nicholas of Cusa

Although Pocock makes no reference to the De concordantia catholica of

Nicholas of Cusa (composed in 1433-34) in The First Decline and Fall, he
would seem to be precisely the sort of author who fits the mold, along with
Flavio Biondo and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who are examined (179-202),
of an imperialist after his time. Scholars have generally associated Nicholas
with a commitment to a version of universalism quite in line with the Renais-
sance translatio imperii school. Paul Sigmund has remarked that “the yearning
for a universal empire and universal church, and the hopes for the universal
agreement among men which characterized De concordantia catholica, re-
mained with Nicholas until his death.”21 Likewise, Morimichi Watanabe dis-
cerns Nicholas’s “failure to recognize the emergence of the nation-state, which
had been gradually gaining ground in Europe.”22 Jeannine Quillet finds in Nicho-
las “a basis and sanction for the progressive development of a ‘universal com-
monwealth’ as the utopian conclusion of an ecumenism whose theoretical foun-
dations he propounded with a boldness that goes well beyond Dante’s anticipa-
tory ideas....”23 And Bernard Guenée implicates Nicholas in a renewal of “the
old idea of universal Empire,” from which “confusion was created which was
ultimately responsible for the persistence of the German dream of universal
On the face of it there seems to be little that distinguishes Cusa’s political
doctrines from preceding advocates of universal empire such as Dante. In De
concordantia catholica, he emphasizes the rational foundations of the earthly
social and political community. Insisting that rational faculties distinguish hu-
man beings from animals, he asserts that “the exercise of their reason” led men
to form associations, adopt laws, and appoint rulers.25 Human reason, Nicholas
maintains, provides access to the precepts of natural law that guides all valid
political institutions and powers, but reason is not equally distributed among
human beings. Cusa remarks that some people are “better endowed with rea-
son,” so that these “wiser and more outstanding men are chosen as rulers by the
others to draw up just laws by the clear reason, wisdom and prudence given to
Paul Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.,
1963), 292.
Morimichi Watanabe, The Political Ideas of Nicholas of Cusa with Special Reference to
De Concordantia Catholica (Geneva, 1963), 144.
Jeannine Quillet, “Community I: Community, Counsel, and Representation,” The Cam-
bridge History of Medieval Political Thought c.350-c.1450, ed. J. H. Burns (Cambridge, 1988),
Bernard Guenée, States and Rulers in Later Medieval Europe, tr. Juliet Vale (Oxford,
1989), 17.
Translation of De concordantia catholica by Paul Sigmund, Nicholas of Cusa: The Catholic
Concordance (Cambridge, 1991), 205-6; Latin text in Nicholas of Cusa, Opera Omnia, XIV, De
concordantia catholica, ed. Gerhard Kallen (Hamburg, 1959-65).

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 9

them by nature and to rule the others by these laws.”26 Consequently, Nicholas
posits a strict distinction between the wise few and the foolish multitude, which
dictates that the latter can play no direct role in their own rule. He says, “Al-
mighty God has assigned a certain natural servitude to the ignorant and stupid
so that they readily trust the wise to help them preserve themselves.”27 Reason
dictates the dominance of the few over the many, and thus the rule of a small
governing elite over the subjected masses.
If reason justifies government in general, then specifically imperial gov-
ernment derives from its superior, spiritual calling. Cusa constructs a hierarchy
of regimes stretching from the king of the Tartars, who “is the least worthy
because he governs through laws least in agreement with those divinely insti-
tuted,” through Islamic governance to Christian monarchs. On top of the pyra-
mid, “according to the standard of holiness of rule, I maintain that the authority
of the empire is the greatest.”28 He reasons that the chief purposes of all rulers,
and especially of Christian kings, are the maintenance of religion and the pro-
motion of eternal ends; all other goals of government are “subservient.” Thus,
“our Christian empire outranks the others, just as our most holy and pure Chris-
tian religion is highest in holiness and truth. And as every kingdom and prince
should care for his kingdom, so the Emperor should care for the whole Chris-
tian people.”29 Other Christian princes are therefore beneath the Roman Em-
peror and must submit to him in matters concerning the protection of Christ’s
church.30 Given Nicholas’s polemical intention to lend support to the efforts of
the Emperor Sigismund to intervene in the Council of Basel, he could hardly
have adopted any other position.31 It is the Emperor, in his view, to whom the
duty pertains to enforce conciliar decrees. Hence, imperial authority must ex-
tend to all Christian believers: “Because he is guardian of the universal faith
and the protector of universal statutes which could not be effectively executed
without a ruler over all, and since the universal statutes respecting the Chris-
tian faithful bind all faithful Christians to maintain and apply them, all are
subject to the emperor’s rule insofar as he is established to maintain those
directives.”32 Such a universal jurisdiction stems from the fact that “the whole
Christian people” transferred power to him to act as enforcer of canon law and
“guardian of the faith.”33 In these matters little room would appear to be af-
forded for national governments to exist as anything other than local agents of
the Emperor.

De concordantia catholica, tr. by Paul Sigmund, 98.
Ibid., 206.
Ibid., 237.
Ibid., 237-38.
Ibid., 239-39.
See Ibid., 250-67.
Ibid., 239-40.
Ibid., 239, 238.

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10 Cary J. Nederman

Yet Cusa is careful to stipulate that the honor due to the Empire, and hence
its universalistic character, pertain only to its status and functions in the spiri-
tual realm. Previously in De concordantia catholica he had acknowledged that
political rule also naturally and necessarily involves non-religious functions
that properly pertain to Christian and non-Christian regimes alike.34 Natural
reason and the survival of the incompetent multitude demand the existence of
political order and communal law. In performing these duties, it seems, the
Emperor’s authority does not derive from God and the Christian people. How,
then, does any particular regime emerge to provide these services? He claims
that all people, even the most ignorant, are held to assent to the terms of their
governance both originally and on a continuing basis. According to Nicholas,
the “enslavement” of the ignorant to the wise does not undercut the voluntary
character of political arrangements. It may be true that “those better endowed
with reason are the natural lords and masters of the others but not by any coer-
cive law or judgment imposed on someone against his will.” This is because
human beings possess a natural equality in their power and freedom.

Since all are by nature free, every governance ... by which subjects are
compelled to abstain from evil deeds and their freedom directed to-
wards the good through fear of punishment can only come from the
agreement and consent of the subjects. For if men are equal in power
and equally free, the true properly ordered authority of one common
ruler who is their equal in power cannot be naturally established ex-
cept by the election and consent of the others, and law is also estab-
lished by consent.35

Of course the volitional basis of political community is not deemed by Nicho-

las to be participatory in character.36 The consent of the masses has the wholly
formal character of silent submission and deference. Insofar as the wise enjoy
privileged access to the reason by which all are governed, there is no cause for
public deliberation on the part of the multitude. The wise remain instead the
natural trustees of the common good: “The rule of the wise and the subjection
of the ignorant are harmonized through common laws that have the wise as
their special authors, protectors, and executors, and the concurrent agreement
of all the others in voluntary subjection.”37 Law and rulership rest upon the
rational foundation of natural law that the wise few are particularly qualified to
discover and uphold.

De concordantia catholica, 205-6.
Ibid., 98.
See Cary J. Nederman, “Rhetoric, Reason, and Republic: Republicanisms—Ancient, Me-
dieval, and Modern,” Renaissance Civic Humanism, ed. Hankins, 261-262.
Nicholas of Cusa, The Catholic Concordance, 208.

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 11

What the principle of consent does contribute, however, is a powerful jus-

tification for localized variations in political rule. Because political order and
law depends upon human volition, at least in its temporal applications, valid
systems of government must always be traced to public consent apart from
spiritual authorization. This also implies that political arrangements are his-
torically mutable and capable of reorganization over time. Consent, then, be-
comes the touchstone of local diversity in political rule. The emperor’s “power
to command,” Cusa asserts, “does not extend beyond the territorial limits of
the empire under him,” citing a decree of the Carolingian Emperor Louis, who,
although he “describes himself as emperor,... issues commands only to the in-
habitants of the kingdom of France and the Lombards who were his de facto
subjects.”38 Even the claim made on behalf of the Roman emperor “to be lord
of the world as ruler of the empire that the Romans once conquered by their
valor” must be tempered by the fact that Rome never extended its conquests to
the larger part of Asia and Africa that, if not heavily populated (to Nicholas’s
knowledge), are of great geographic expanse.39 The only reasonable conclu-
sion is that the phrase “lord of all the world” must be interpreted narrowly and
figuratively in its application to the Emperor: “If rulership is only rightly pos-
sessed through the elective agreement of the subjects as argued above, then he
is only lord over those who are actually subject to him and we should conclude
that the emperor is lord of that part of the world over which he exercises effec-
tive authority.”40 Cusa never questions the legitimacy of the political rights
enjoyed by the many kingdoms of the world beyond the boundaries of the
Western Empire nor does he insist upon a global reach (even potentially) for
the temporal authority of the emperor. This is implied, for example, in his ex-
planation of the Emperor’s right to arrange the seating of other temporal princes
in attendance at a General Council: “The ranking of the secular participants
depends on the emperor, since everyone, including those not otherwise subject
to him, is under him in the council because of his role as protector of the coun-
cil. Therefore he has jurisdiction over all of them.”41 But that jurisdiction stems
purely from the sacral dimension of the imperial majesty. The Emperor’s duty
as protector of the catholic faith has no corollary in a secular responsibility for
all the peoples of the earth because the latter requires public consent that has
not been given, whereas the permission of the body of Christian believers au-
thorizes the former.
Consequently, Cusa clearly believes that the scope of the imperial jurisdic-
tion in Europe possesses a purely political (that is, historical and conventional)
character. In a series of chapters tracing the decay of the Empire since the time

De concordantia catholica, 235.
Ibid., 235-36.
Ibid., 236.
Ibid., 260.

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12 Cary J. Nederman

of Emperor Otto I, De concordantia catholica demonstrates how the extent of

the Emperor’s authority has both grown and shrunk according to the provinces
that have placed themselves under its guardianship—a sort of pro-imperialist
restatement of Decline and Fall. Initially, the domains under Otto I’s command
included “the kingdom of Italy and the Lombards, the kingdom of Burgundy”
as well as “the kingdom of the Germans of which his father, Henry, is supposed
to have been the first king.”42 Gradually, other peoples—Cusa names the Hun-
garians, Bohemians, Danes, Norwegians, Poles, and Prussians—placed them-
selves under the Empire on account of its unparalleled ability to make effective
its laws and uphold communal peace and order.43 Their rulers, on Cusa’s ac-
count, became imperial functionaries: “It was also decreed at that time that
princes, dukes, and counts should be appointed to public office at the command
of the emperor and should be removable at his will with an obligation to give
an account of their ministry to the public treasury.”44 He describes virtually a
“golden age” of imperial majesty and honor in which “everything tended to the
public good.”45 In more recent times, by contrast, the Empire is in a state of
decline and decay. Not only have those nations that once submitted to the Em-
peror and his laws withdrawn their consent because peace is not maintained,
but even the imperial princes within Germany have asserted their autonomy
and claimed rights formerly reserved for the Emperor.46 Nicholas laments, “A
mortal disease has invaded the German empire and unless an antidote is found
at once, death will surely follow. You seek the empire in Germany and you will
not find it. As a result others will take our place and we will be divided and
subjected to another nation.”47 Nicholas the imperialist sounds oddly like Bruni
the republican in endorsing a Decline and Fall narrative.
Nicholas, of course, does not regard Decline and Fall as an inevitable out-
come, calling instead for immediate reform of the Empire to promote its recov-
ery. Such a restored Empire would still be by no means a universal (or even
trans-European) one: it encompasses only Italy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and the
whole of Germany—that is, the original extent of Otto I’s jurisdiction48—of
which Nicholas had earlier said “our empire is composed” and which “have
maintained fidelity and loyalty to it.”49 Such reform is a far cry from the univer-
salism that is sometimes ascribed to Cusa. And indeed, the closing chapters of
De concordantia catholica read like nothing so much as a blueprint for the
building of a federated nation, with proposals for national and regional assem-

Nicholas of Cusa, The Catholic Concordance, 287.
Ibid., 287-88
Ibid., 289.
Ibid., 290.
Ibid., 291-95.
Ibid., 295.
Ibid., 295-96.
Ibid., 287.

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 13

blies (complete with a sophisticated balloting system), a customs union, fiscal

administration and tax-gathering, and a paid national army. Nicholas recog-
nizes that the foundation of popular consent to earthly government means that
even if such a far-flung empire did once legitimately exist, its validity has been
eroded by later patterns of communal choice. While he may value universality
as a quality necessary for the sake of the church, he recognizes that the shifting
and wholly conventional nature of political volition mean that such a global
system of temporal government cannot be justified as the permanently “best”
or “ideal.” Cusa’s emphasis on the “historicity” of secular political life, and
hence of the inescapable diversity of systems of rule, may indeed be viewed as
a recurring theme in his social thought. Cusa’s appeal to the historical charac-
ter of nationality in De pace fidei, written twenty years after De concordantia
catholica, constitutes one of the central pillars upholding his conception of
religious toleration.50 In the later work Nicholas in fact praises the peaceful
expression of national pride through different forms of religious rites (non-
Christian as well as Christian) typical of each natio without denying the truth
of a single set of universal religious principles. In advancing an explicit story
of imperial Decline and Fall from an overtly non-republican perspective, Nicho-
las demonstrates that the waters dividing the medieval from the modern banks
are indeed quite a lot muddier than Pocock’s account permits.


Nicholas of Cusa has the earmarks of a universalistic imperialist, who,

lacking exposure to the republicanism flourishing in Florence, continued in the
medieval mode to promote the themes associated with translatio imperii. Yet
Nicholas proves as difficult a case as Marsiglio of Padua. Both thinkers drink
at the well of medieval imperialism, yet neither wind up adopting the position
that Pocock’s historiography would lead us to expect. Is this a fatal criticism of
his narrative? Perhaps not. It occurs to me that a somewhat less strident version
of his argument, permitting for greater variation on both the medieval and the
early modern shores of the divide, could still do much (although not all) of the
work of his thesis in its current form. Acknowledging that the waters between
the Middle Ages and the Renaissance could be forded on occasion, at least by
creative political thinkers such as Marsiglio and Nicholas, would go a long
way toward the formulation of a historiographical perspective that actually fits
the range of examples at hand.51

Cary J. Nederman, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleraion, c.1100-
c.1550 (University Park, Penn., 2000), 89-95.
Cary J. Nederman, “Il Pensiero Politico Europeo tra l’Epoca Medievale e la Modernità: Il
Contributo Storico e Storiografico di Alessandro Passerin d’Entrèves,” Alessandro Passerin
d’Entrèves pensatore europeo, ed. Sergio Noto (Bologna, 2004), 135-51.

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14 Cary J. Nederman

Perhaps the broader problem with Pocock’s interpretation of the divide

between the medieval and the modern ways of conceptualizing politics may
stem from his Baron-derived fascination with the revival of classical republi-
canism as the hallmark of modernity. This is hardly a novel observation. Nu-
merous scholars during the past thirty years have dined on the carcass of Pocock’s
historical and conceptual understanding of republican thought.52 But this criti-
cal literature itself largely retains an obsession with finding the “true” kernel of
modern republicanism (or of the classical variant, for that matter). More fruit-
ful may be the recognition that “republicanism” (modern or classical) denotes
a range of interlinked, but also potentially contradictory, discourses that often
start from radically different premises and principles.53 As Janet Coleman has
argued, during the Middle Ages the term respublica could be a virtual syn-
onym for “good government,” regardless of the institutional arrangements, and
thus often applied to monarchies of many types.54 Such a usage seems antitheti-
cal to the scholarly literature on republican theory and practice, which insists
on an equivalence of republicanism with anti-monarchism and anti-imperial-
ism. How and when the common medieval, generic meaning of “republic” dis-
appeared remains uncertain and in need of further examination. Consequently,
republics were by no means as discretely and self-evidently distinct from other
modes of political life as Baron and Pocock would have it, a point that Mikael
Hörnqvist has forcefully underscored in the case of Machiavelli.55 Thus, “king-
ship” or “empire” need not be juxtaposed to “republic” in the way that Baron
and Pocock implicitly assume. Imperialism, monarchy, and republicanism may
have common and mutually reinforcing intellectual threads that are missed when
the doctrines are rigidly constituted.
What we gain from this approach is the recognition that categories such as
“medieval” and “modern” can and should be gainfully deployed, yet always
with the understanding that they are provisional and potentially fluid. While
Marsiglio of Padua deserves to be labeled a “medieval” thinker on more than
simple chronological grounds, he broke free from some of the constraints im-
posed by the political attitudes conventionally associated with the Middle Ages.
This does not make him “modern,” but it does mean that his understanding of
empire resonated with later visions. Nicholas of Cusa, too, borrowed the tools
of medieval imperialism but employed them to craft doctrines that were in-
fused with decidedly non-medieval overtones. If we fail to invoke the termi-

See Vickie Sullivan, “Introduction,” Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Lib-
eral Republicanism in England (Cambridge, 2004), 1-9, 22-27.
Nederman, “Rhetoric, Reason, and Republic,” 248-49, 268-69.
Janet Coleman, “Structural Realities of Power: The Theory and Practice of Monarchies
and Republics in Relation to Personal and Collective Liberty,” The Propagation of Power in the
Medieval West, ed. Martin Gosman, Arjo Vanderjagt, and Jan Veenstra (Gronigen, 1998).
Mikael Hörnqvist, Machiavelli and Empire (Cambridge, 2004).

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The Medieval/Modern Divide 15

nology of “medieval” and “modern,” then we lose some important elements in

the understanding of Marsiglio’s and Nicholas’s distinctive contributions to
the history of Western political ideas. But if we insist on the absolute character
of the language of periodization, then we likewise do not comprehend the com-
plex interplay between ideas of one time and those of another. And as scholars
of intellectual history, the comparison of texts to contexts, as well as of texts to
other texts, forms a key feature of our enterprise and calling.56

Texas A & M University.

Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2004 meeting of the Renaissance
Society of America in New York City and to the 2004 Texas Medieval Studies Association
meeting in Dallas. Thanks are due to the participants in these sessions, including John Pocock
himself, as well as to the anonymous reviewers for JHI for their suggestions.

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