The role of the feudal king is popularly depicted as a monstrous tyrant, but this is a misconception jaded by a modern understanding of authority.  Europe had known kings for thousands of years, but these were prima inter pares (first among equals); feudal Europe was a network of jurisdictions and presented an advanced, yet stateless civilization.  Arthur Joseph Penty refers to the formal clause of a medieval king’s pledge – ‘The land and each inhabitant of it shall be undisturbed in his rights and customs’ – before concluding that kings were

‘not so much the ruler as the first guardian…not so much the owner of the realm as the principal administrator… The principle involved is the one which runs through all Mediaeval polity of reciprocal rights and duties. All public authority was looked upon as a responsibility conferred by a higher power, but the duty of obedience was conditioned by the rightfulness of the command.’[1]

The Church had a fundamental role in maintaining the integrity of these kings.  Canon law – the law of the Church – was built on the rational, natural law; Gratian, Bishop of Chiusi, paved the way for the first systematised set of laws, the Decretum of the mid-12th century, which began with the sentence: ‘The human race is ruled by two things, namely, natural law and usages’.[2]  Canon law also incorporated more of the customary law of European peoples and respected the more libertarian character of ancient European societies: ‘The men of the age fervently believed that “old law was good law.” The compilers of the canonical collections endorsed this maxim.’[3]  This was a fundamental of the customary laws of the Indo-European peoples and essential to feudal society.  Yet, whilst it provided the basis for the development of independent, sovereign institutions and cities etc., it was slow to keep up with the vogue of rediscovered Roman law among many nobles, bourgeoisie and lawyers.  Despite the efforts of Gratian, Canon law would no longer continue to blend the aristocratic libertarianism of European tribes with the higher civilization of Christian rule.

In the 13th century, a new group of canonists would emerge and witness a significant transformation of canon law, almost all of them studying at Bologna, under ‘the greatest Romanist of the time,’ Azo.   Pennington notes of this transformation, ‘The “romanization” of canon law had been underway for almost fifty years, but they applied Justinian’s doctrines more completely and comprehensively than earlier generations.’[4]  One such student, Laurentius Hispanus, would turn natural law upside down and, thus, the whole course of Western civilisation.  It is worth quoting Kenneth Pennington, the foremost scholar on this matter, at some length:

‘In a gloss to Innocent III’s decretal Quanto personam Laurentius adopted a truly revolutionary idea: the prince may make iniquitous law, for the prince’s will is held to be reason. Germanic and earlier learned conceptions of law confused the content of law — that law must be just and reasonable — with the source of the law, the will of the prince. Before Laurentius, the jurists had accepted the idea that a law could not be valid unless it embodied reason. By separating the prince’s will from reason, Laurentius located the source of legislative authority in the will of the prince and laid the intellectual groundwork for a new conception of authority in which the prince or the state might exercise power unreasonably, but legally. He can be said to have begun the voluntarist tradition in political thought.’[5]

Be careful not to confuse the meaning of voluntarist; the lex voluntas posits the will as the source of law, as opposed to the lex rationis of classical natural law, which has reason as the source of law – similar to the a priori of praxeology in Austrian economics or of argumentation in van Dun and Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s dialogue/argumentation ethics.

So, Laurentius not only produced the lex voluntas school of natural law, but in doing so, conceived the embryonic, Machiavellian notion of the legitimised, coercive state.  Even the popes became taken up with this idea; another lawyer of Bologna, Tancred of Lombardy, who considered Laurentius his master, was appointed archdeacon of the cathedral of Bologna and dominated the school.  It was a time when an intellectual status quo could rapidly form across the continent, as Pennington further explains:

‘Unlike today, the schools and the jurists who taught in them were not isolated geographically, linguistically, and jurisdictionally from each other… The jurists of the North read and taught the jurists of the South… The result of this work was the development of a common European jurisprudence that emerged during the thirteenth century.’[6]

Early 16th century France shows the permeation of absolutist thought Following Bude’s monarchical divine right theory, Rothbard notes the ideas of the two leading legists of the time, de Grassaille: ‘the king is God on earth’; and de Chasseneux, whose view he summarises thus:

‘All jurisdiction…pertains to the supreme authority of the prince; no man may have jurisdiction except through the ruler’s concession and permission. The authority to create magistrates thus belongs to the prince alone; all offices and dignities flow and are derived from him as from a fountain.’

These legists could well read such ideas back into 13th century developments of the lex voluntas school, as the prioritising of the prince’s will had cracked the dam and, in their own day, the flood would wash away everything in its path.  They ‘systematically tore down the legal rights of all corporations or organizations which, in the Middle Ages, had stood between the individual and the state. There were no longer any intermediary or feudal authorities.’ [7]

The Church, which once opposed the growth of statism, now had many thinkers who had imbibed the Machiavellian zeitgeist.  Giovanni Botero, an Italian Jesuit, writing in the second-half of the 16th century, seems to be critical of Machiavelli, according to many scholars’ analysis of The Reason of State, but Rothbard’s perspective is not so superficial:

‘Botero took care to attack Machiavelli explicitly and pro-forma. But that was merely a ritualistic cover for Botero’s adoption of the essence of Machiavellian thought. While beginning by paying lip service to the importance of the prince’s cleaving to justice, Botero quickly goes on to justify political prudence as crucial to all government…that ‘in the decisions made by princes, interest will always override every other argument’; all other considerations…must go by the board. The overall view of Botero is that a prince must be guided primarily by “reason of state” [raison d’etat], and that actions so guided “cannot be considered in the light of ordinary reason”. The morality and justification for actions of the prince is diametrically opposed to the principles that must guide the ordinary citizen.’[8]

This imagining of a higher reason of state officers, enabling them to act with impunity where actual human reason would deem it unjust, was the influence of Roman law’s derivation of law from will instead of reason and its replacement of natural justice with an artificial order where might insists upon its rightness.  It is this school of thought which would later inform Locke et al. and be called classical liberalism, which is neither truly classical nor liberal.  The king as a person, a fallible person, would differ from the infallible office of king, forming the basis for future ‘civil servants’.[9]

The best examples of this monarchical revolution are the ‘different stories circulated about jurists’ losing horses’ to certain kings in the 16th century.  These apocryphal stories spoke volumes about the kings’ attitudes toward their own dominium and became a running joke – a canter of banter, if you will.  In the original 12th century tale, upon which these were based, Frederick Barbarossa was once riding between the knights, Sirs Bulgarus and Martinus.  He asked them whether he was dominus, i.e. the lord or owner, of the world.  Whilst Bulgarus replied that he was not owner so far as property was concerned, Martinus replied that he was.  The Emperor then got off the horse and had it presented to Martinus.  At this, Bulgarus waxed lyrical: amisi equum, quia dixi equum quod non fuit equum – I lost an equine, because I upheld equity, which was not equitable.

Another story involved two competing teachers of law from Bologna, Azo and Lotharius, and Emperor Henry VI.  When asked who has merum imperium (that is, jurisdiction), Lotharius said the emperor alone does, whilst Azo declared subordinate magistrates held their own jurisdictions unless these were revoked.  Lotharius got the horse and Azo was, we hope, at least thanked for coming; this shows the absoluteness of authority assumed by kings and indicates that, on the whole, any ideas which deviated from this centralising tendency were not well-received.

Like Bodin in the sixteenth century, the jurists of the mid-thirteenth century considered a subject’s dominium over private property to be a right derived from natural law that was exempt from princely authority, with several exceptions: the prince could expropriate property if he had cause, was pressed by necessity, or could rest his action on the public good.’  However, this only grew – they ‘added a further principle taken from Roman private law: two men cannot have complete dominium over the same property.’[10]  Who else then would have superior dominium but the king?

Bruce L. Benson provides some insight as to how such a development took place in England, particularly after the 11thcentury Norman Conquest, when the land was still threatened by Danes, as it had been for decades.  What started as a means to increase much-needed revenue by forfeiting the goods of executed criminals, developed into criminal law; customary law and other jurisdictions settled matters between individuals, but the kings discovered that, by expanding their supremacy into other jurisdictions through offering pleas and forfeitures, they could become a supreme judge.  Before, Anglo-Saxon law provided ‘that every freeman’s house had a “peace” [which] if it was broken, the violator had to pay…but as royal power expanded, the king declared that his peace extended to other places.  First it was applied to places where the king travelled, then to churches, monasteries, highways, and bridges.’  As revenue increased, the king could effectively buy support for the operation by giving a cut to sheriffs etc.[11]  Welcome to the warfare/welfare state.

Previously, kings certainly had an imperium – a Christian obligation to maintain peace in the Church, amongst his people – the negotium pacis et fides; but, this expansion of the king’s dominium was an encroachment on a person’s restitution for wrongs committed against them.  Further encroachments would give rise to the legend of Robin Hood, and what Pollock and Maitland called the ‘constant tendency to conflict between the old customs of the family and the newer laws of the State’.[12]


[1] Penty, A.J. (2018 ed.) A Guildman’s Interpretation of History, Forgotten Books, p.52

[2] Pennington, K. (n.d.) ‘A Short History of Canon Law from Apostolic Times to 1917’, p.19 – (20/06/2018)

[3] Ibid., p.17

[4] Ibid., p.27

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p.36

[7] Rothbard, M. (2006 ed.) An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Mises Institute, pp. 216-217

[8] Ibid., p.213

[9] Durzan, J. (2001) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, Harper Perennial, p.251

[10] Pennington, K. (1993) The Prince and the law, 1200-1600: Sovereignty and Rights in the Western Legal Tradition, University of California Press, p.24

[11] Benson, pp.29-30

[12] Ibid.