Medieval Origins of Anglospheric Freedom

From an American standpoint, what is most relevant about the medieval period is the experience of England, since this was the proximate source of our ideas and institutions. English and continental politics of the Middle Ages had much in common, but differed sharply at the outset of the modern era. On the continent, far from advancing the cause of freedom, the Renaissance ideas of kingship and related institutional changes almost destroyed it. In France and Spain, the chiefly German “Holy Roman Empire” and the city-states of Italy, neopagan concepts of absolute authority came to the forefront, denying the medieval view that there were, or should be, limits on the secular power. In England alone, the struggle would produce the opposite verdict.

We are used to thinking of England as the home of representative government; less familiar is the idea that England enjoyed free institutions at the on-set of the modern era because it had retained them from the preceding era. While Renaissance notions were triumphing on the continent, the English experienced, in Maitland’s phrase “a marvelous resuscitation of the medieval law.” That they did so was in large measure … the doing of the church, which in Britain produced a remarkable series of statesman/clerics — from Becket and John of Salisbury in the reign of Henry II to Langton, Grosseteste and Bracton in the century to follow. The doctrine that they imprinted on English constitutional theory was that “the King is under God — and under the law,” and not entitled to rule by personal edict. This was the essence of Christian teaching about the state and it became the guiding precept of England’s common lawyers.

M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom

Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedling

2 thoughts on “Medieval Origins of Anglospheric Freedom”

  1. ” the Renaissance ideas of kingship and related institutional changes almost destroyed it. ”

    I’ll bite. No, they absolutist idea comes from Rome and is propogated by the civilians (the students of Roman Law) who began studying Justinian’s code in the 12th century. England is a place where the roman law never took root.

  2. By happy coincidence, today’s A&L Daily points to this article on how the British came to establish the subordination of the king to the law. The next step was the Glorious Revolution, where the removal of a king was accomplished without killing him, and his successors implicitly agreed to the limits of their power.

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