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Constitutionalism

Medieval Conceptions

The medieval model of constitutionalism is often associated with Magna Carta (1215); in it, the constitutionalistic idea that personal liberties should be protected from the authority of the prince by established legal procedures was already present. But the medieval contributions to constitutional theory may be found in the sphere of ecclesiology under the label of conciliarism. Conciliarism was the idea that the pope was not an absolute ruler but a constitutional monarch whose authority was ministerial and delegated to him for the common good of the church. The ultimate authority in the church, then, resides in the whole body of the believers or their representatives—namely, the general council. According to twelfth-century canonists, who grappled with the questions surrounding the possible abuse of power by the pope, the pope was an intrinsic part of a general council and the authority of the pope with a general council was greater than without: an argument parallel to the secular idea of the supremacy of the king-in-parliament. The divine nature of papal authority did not necessarily result in theocratic absolutism because of the idea that the power of jurisdiction came from God through the people; the power of the papal office originates from God, but the choice of a person who assumes the office depends on the consent of human cooperation.

The exaltation of papal sovereignty in thirteenth-century mendicant ecclesiology was countered by secular masters' "episcopalist" view: Christ conferred supreme authority not to Peter and his successors alone but equally to the twelve apostles and their successors; thereby ecclesiastical sovereignty was divided. All these elements of thought constituted conciliarism in the later Middle Ages, represented by such thinkers as Pierre d'Ailly (1350–1420) and Jean de Gerson (Jean Charlier; 1363–1429). The historian J. N. Figgis describes early modern constitutionalism as "the last effort of medieval constitutionalism," but the extent to which medieval constitutional thought influenced its modern counterpart remains debatable.

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