Medieval Representative Government and the Sanctioning of Law

January 16, 2014

King Ferdinand the Catholic and his Court. Painting by Francisco de Mendieta

King Ferdinand the Catholic and his Court. Painting by Francisco de Mendieta

The ruler was obliged to “find” law, give it his sanction, and enforce that law that came from time immemorial. The law did not belong to him. To aid in this discovery process, he had to seek the assent of those affected; he often was bound to have recourse to assemblies or councilors. As a result, one of the most original medieval institutions was born: representative government. Subscription1

Unknown to either ancient Greece or Rome, representation occurred because medieval law required consultation between ruler and people. Important decisions had to be made collectively, and public consent and recognition be given to any change of custom following the maxim “what touches all, must be approved by all.” (1) True to this consultative spirit, medieval jurisprudence later gave rise at all levels to representative bodies like the British Parliament, which continues to our present day.

The Lords chamber filled with guests listening to the Queen’s Speech. Photo by UK Parliament


(1) The old adage, “quod omnes tangit ab omnibus probetur,” was part of the Justinian code and introduced into canon law by Gratian. It was amply applied in medieval society: “During the thirteenth century it was the general conviction that the realm was preserved by customary and constitutional law. The king was a kind of trustee whose duty it was to safeguard the laws. There was scarcely any important statute in which he omitted to claim that he had consulted advice and received assent, in other words, that he was in agreement with the legal convictions of the community.” Thomas Gilby, The Political Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 285.


John Horvat II, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go (York, Penn.: York Press, 2013), 232-3.

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