Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 May 2010
Medieval theories of resistance and consent
The idea that there can be no legitimate power without the consent of the governed preceded the emergence of the democratic ideal, that is, the ideal of a self-instituted, self-regulated social order. It was in the Middle Ages, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, that the idea of popular consent was encapsulated in a celebrated maxim: “That which is the concern of all must be approved by all.” All the great authors of that time, theologians as well as philosophers, paid homage to it. One should be careful, however, not to interpret this maxim in modern democratic terms. At the time, its constitutional implications were limited. No specific procedures of consent were called for, and there was certainly no intention to put decisions to a vote. Its significance was above all moral: the Prince was exhorted to govern in the common interest. The point was simply to affirm that society is the source as well as the object of political authority. If there was any hint of popular sovereignty at all, it was therefore purely passive. The principle was solemnly affirmed, but without regard to its application. For medieval commentators, the most important thing was the nature of the good; achieving it depended on the virtues of the Prince. The theoretical imperative was to distinguish between good and bad governors, to distinguish between the Prince devoted to his people and the tyrant who governed for himself alone without regard to his subjects' needs or desires.