Significance of the ‘Defensor Pacis’

Defensor Pacis was a document written by Marsilius of Padua (1270-1342) in the early 14th century which introduced new ideas that directly attacked the authority of the Church and glorified the authority of the state. It also promoted the idea of democracy, and all-powerful government backed with coercive force.

The development of Marsilius’ ideas can be seen in his earlier work, De jurisdictione imperialis in causis matrimonialibus. This work asserted the emperor (Louis of Bavaria)’s authority over certain aspects of marriage. It said that the emperor could annul a marriage (a power exclusive to the Church), and dispense with the impediment of consanguinity, which means that if the two parties were viewed by the Church as too closely related to marry, the emperor could allow the marriage to take place anyway. This work was written mainly to assist the emperor in a specific matter, namely to annul his son’s marriage, but it revealed Marsilinius’ view of the power of the Church versus the power of the state. In the modern world, it may seem strange that the Church exercised sole authority over marriage, when now much of this authority rests in the state. However, it must be remembered that matrimony was (and still is) a sacrament, and came under the jurisdiction of the Church.

In the 1320s, there was a conflict between Pope John XXII and Louis of Bavaria. In the midst of this conflict, Marsilinius of Padua wrote the Defensor Pacis (1324), which directly attacked papal and Church authority. It said that the state should be autonomous and entirely free from the Church. It said that the power of the Pope should be dramatically reduced, leaving him only the authority to call an ecumenical council, which should be superior to him, and that the emperor had authority over both the Pope and the ecumenical councils. The Pope’s only decrees can be ones already decided by the council, and any others were not binding. Marsilinius even went so far as to say that the Church has no visible head because Peter was no greater than any of the other apostles, and probably did not even go to Rome. Today it is generally accepted that he did go, however.

Concerning the Church itself, Marsilinius said that it cannot legislate, adjudicate, or even buy or sell goods without imperial authorization. He said the election of priests was under the authority of the community, and that the community had to oversee the performance of clerical duties.

Marsilinius said that the government has to be consented to by the people, and have as many people as possible involved in the making of the laws so that there will be no danger of them benefiting only a few. He said that the state exists so that men may live well, and to resolve conflicts. These ideas seem to be very modern, and conform to the concepts of liberty. However, there is no emphasis on individual rights, or any general principles that govern man’s conduct. Law is simply the will of the emperor, or the will of the community, based not on any principles, and backed with coercive force.

Marsilinius’ book, Defensor Pacis, was a direct assault on the authority of the Pope and of the Church. It denied basic rights of the Pope and Church, and reduced the Pope to a figurehead. It supported the supreme authority of the government, as long as it had the consent of the people. Defensor Pacis was a work that emphasized the power of the emperor over the Pope, and the power of the state over the people.



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