Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis ca. 700 years later


With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation soon to be commemorated, my thoughts wandered to the question of why different branches were successful in different areas, and specifically why England did not take to Lutheranism, in the way Denmark and Germany, for instance did. Being mostly interested in 20th-century history, my knowledge of earlier centuries depends partly on peregrinations occasioned by commemorations, book titles that catch my fancy, or work assignments that come my way.

A forthcoming copy-editing assignment led me to a book, which has long languished unread in my bookshelves, The English Reformation by A.G. Dickens (1964/1967). This marvellous work of historical craftsmanship, being both well-researched and beautifully written did provide me with a possible answer to my query on England and Lutheranism. But it also brought up the past, in the form of Marsilius of Padua (ca.1275/1283- ca. 1342/1343).

Back in 1982/83, as a master’s student at SOAS, I had attended a lecture by Prof. P.J. Vatikiotis, who to a question of mine about how it was that Europe managed to move away from the idea of religious leaders also heading the political life of a country, briefly answered: “Read Marsilius of Padua”. Today, I would have immediately googled this unknown name. Things were otherwise in the pre-digital days, and I soon forgot the matter.

However, when in 2004, having gloriously failed an oral exam in history philosophy in my first semester at the University of Copenhagen, I chose a new course, Stat og kirke i tusinde år (A thousand years of Church and State). Here, I decided to use the skill I had acquired in the history philosophy class, where we’d read a huge variety of exacting texts, by doing an exam paper on Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis (Defender of the Peace).

Despite the polemical nature of the work, and its length, which could have dearly done with editing, Marsilius of Padua’s thoughts from the 14th century are simply mind blowing. Dickens terms them bold (p. 41); and Marsilius, the greatest of medieval rebels (p. 123).

Today, when human beings around the world are still held hostage to the perennial question of who has ultimate authority over the inner life and the outer life, the work of this outstanding thinker who was an early developer of the concept of people’s sovereignty and who profoundly influenced the Reformation, is still worth reading.

A footnote: In 2007 when the bombardment in 1807 of Copenhagen by the British during the Napoleonic Wars was commemorated, one of the items exhibited, was a damaged, printed copy of Defensor pacis from 1522.


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