Marsilius of Padua

From New World Encyclopedia

Marsilius of Padua (Italian Marsilio or Marsiglio da Padova) (1270 – 1342) was an Italian medieval scholar, physician, philosopher, and political thinker. He collaborated with the Averroist philosopher Jean de Jandun on Defensor pacis (1324), one of the most extraordinary political and religious works of the fourteenth century. Crafted in response to the excommunication of Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor elect, by Pope John XXII, Defensor pacis laid out an elaborate theory of government by popular sovereignty and challenged the authority of the Pope and clergy over secular affairs. Marsilius supported the supremacy of the Empire as a government independent of the Holy See by declaring that all political power came from the people, and that the supreme coercive power in a community should be in the hands of a secular body chosen by popular consensus. He denied the anointing of a special leader of the church by St. Peter; said that all priests and bishops were equally invested with the authority to perform sacraments but did not have the right to judge their parishioners; and presented the position that scriptures should be interpreted by councils of the faithful rather than by authorities of the church.

Marcilius was one of the first to apply the methods of Aristotelian logic to Biblical scripture, theology and church doctrine.


Marsilius was born at Padua, Italy in 1270. He served for a time in the army of the emperor, and then began to study medicine at the University of Padua. Around 1311 he traveled to Paris to complete his medical studies, and in December of 1312 he became rector of the University of Paris. Soon after that, he went to Avignon and obtained letters from Pope John XXII appointing him as a canon of the Church of Padua (Reg. Vat., a. I, p. 2, n. 1714). In Paris, Marcilius made the acquaintance of Averroist philosopher Jean de Jandun, canon of Senlis, and together they composed "Defensor pacis" in 1324, to support Louis of Bavaria in his struggles with Pope John XXII.

At this time a conflict had arisen between Pope John XXII and Louis of Bavaria, the Roman emperor elect (elected 1314, died 1347). The Pope had denounced Louis for supporting heretics, excommunicated him and ordered him to step down within three months. At issue was whether or not the Roman emperor could rule without the confirmation of the Pope. In 1326, when it became known that they were the authors of Defensor pacis, Marcilius and Jean de Jandun went to Nuremberg to seek the protection of the emperor Louis of Bavaria. Startled by the boldness of their political and religious theories, he was at first inclined to regard them as heretics. He soon changed his mind, however, and, admitted them to the circle of his intimates. In the Papal Bull of April 3, 1327, John XXII reproached Louis of Bavaria for having welcomed Marcilius and Jean de Jandun to his court. On the ninth of April the Pope summoned them and excommunicated them. On October 23rd, 1327, a commission appointed by the Pope condemned five of the propositions of Marsilius and supported their claims with evidence from history and the Scriptures. The propositions of Marcilius and Jean de Jandun were declared to be erroneous, against the Holy Scriptures, heretical and dangerous to the Catholic church.

Marsilius accompanied Louis to Italy, where he saw some of his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. On January 17, 1328, Louis had himself crowned by Colonna syndic of the Roman people. He removed John XXII as Pope and replaced him with a mendicant friar, Pietro de Corbara, raised by an imperial decree to the throne of St. Peter as Nicholas V after a supposed popular election on May 12, 1328. Marsilius was appointed Imperial Vicar and began to persecute the clergy who had remained faithful to John XXII. In recompense for his services, he seems to have been appointed archbishop of Milan, while his collaborator, John of Jandun, obtained from Louis the bishopric of Ferrara. Marsilius was apparently abandoned by the emperor in October of 1336 and died towards the end of 1342.


In addition to Defensor pacis, Marsilius of Padua also composed a treatise De translatione imperii romani, which is merely a rearrangement of a work of Landolfo Colonna, De jurisdictione imperatoris in causa matrimoniali. It was intended to prove the exclusive jurisdiction of the emperor in matrimonial affairs, in order to justify the actions of Louis of Bavaria, who had just annulled the marriage of the son of the king of Bohemia and the countess of Tirol. In the Defensor minor, an unpublished work preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Marsilius completed and elaborated certain points from the Defensor pacis. It further expounds his democratic theory and deals with ecclesiastical jurisdiction, penances, indulgences, crusades and pilgrimages, vows, excommunication, the pope and the council, marriage, and divorce.


The conflict between Louis of Bavaria and Pope John XXII was one of many political disputes which arose between the powerful Roman Catholic Church and the European monarchs over issues such as marriage alliances, land ownership, taxation of church property, and territorial sovereignty. Marsilius did not believe that the Roman Catholic Church should involve itself in secular politics and saw the church as a divisive force that was disrupting the peace of Europe. Cæsarian theologians like Guilaume Durand and the Dominican John of Paris had already begun to challenge the hegemony of the Roman church.

Within the religious community there was also disgust at the corruption and materialism which existed at the highest levels of the church hierarchy, and which seemed at odds with the teachings of Christ.

Defensor Pacis

Defensor Pacis consists of three discourses. The first is a philosophical treatise which draws heavily from Aristotle’s Politics. It explains that the people are the true source of all political power, and that a leader's authority is conferred on him by the people of a community. The second discourses are theological and use passages from the Bible and the writings of the saints to discuss the role of the church, the Pope and the clergy. Marsilius makes it clear that the church should submit to secular authority in civic affairs, and confine its activities to the sphere of religion. He applies the same political principles to the church that he applied to society in the first discourse, and sets out to prove that priests have no coercive power over their parishioners, and that the Pope does not have plenitude of power.

Marcilius sought to clearly demonstrate that the church had no authority to create laws or to intervene in secular affairs, except when that authority was conferrred by a vote of the people. On “the authority of Aristotle” he declared that “the first real and effective source of law is the people or the body of citizens…according to its election or its will expressed in general convention by vote.” He emphasized that political power should come from the people, and that a ruler, secular or religious, only had the authority given to him by consensus of the community. He pointed out that Jesus Christ and his disciples submitted to the dictates of the civil government and advised their followers to do the same, and that Jesus excluded himself from being a political ruler when he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The example set by Jesus and his disciples, said Marcilius, “excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters…from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule.” The church, then, should confine its activities to spiritual matters and submit to secular authorities in civic matters. As further proof of this, Marsilius pointed out that while punishment for civil crime takes place during earthly life, punishment for sin will take place in another realm, the afterlife.

Marcilius also used examples from the Scriptures to deny that the Pope and other high-ranking officials of the church had any special anointing or authority from God, and emphasized that any hierarchical authority should be conferred through election by the faithful of the church, out of a need for leaders and administrators as the church grew in size. Marsilius emphasized that Christ had bequeathed this authority equally to all his disciples and had not appointed Peter or any other disciple to a position of leadership or authority over the others; therefore the concept that the Pope had plenitude of power was incorrect. He further suggested that within the church, the power to clarify doctrine and interpret Scripture was a legislative one, with discussion and voting carried out by the community of the faithful, or by a council elected to represent them, rather than by officials of the church.

The authority which Christ bequeathed to his disciples, and thus to the priesthood, was the authority to administer the sacraments, such as baptism and communion. A priest, however, did not have the authority to judge whether or not a man’s sins had been forgiven; that was a matter for God alone.

Finally, Marsilius launched a scathing attack on the corruption and materialism of high-ranking officials in the Catholic church: “For temporal power and greed, and lust of authority and rule is not the spouse of Christ, nor has He wedded such a spirit, but has expressly repudiated it, as has been shown from the divine Scriptures...Nor is this the heritage of the apostles which they left to their true, not fictitious, successors...And so by their striving for worldly things, the spouse of Christ is not truly defended. The recent Roman popes do not defend her who is the spouse of Christ, that is, the Catholic faith and the multitude of the believers, but offend her; they do not preserve her beauty, that is, the unity of the faith, but defile it. since by sowing tares and schisms they are tearing her limb from limb, and since they do not receive the true companions of Christ, poverty and humility, but shut them out entirely, they show themselves not servants but enemies of the husband.”

The Aristotelian political ideas set forth in Defensor pacis were already circulating among fourteenth century scholars, but the attacks on the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope were revolutionary for their time. Defensor pacis had a powerful impact on medieval intellectuals, and helped lay a foundation for the Reformation. John Gerson recommended it, and during Henry VIII’s fight with the Catholic Church in 1535, Thomas Cromwell patronized its translation into English.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • D’Entreves, Alexander P. The Medieval Contributions to Political Thought: Thomas Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua, Richard Hooker. Humanities Press, 1959.
  • Garnett, George. Marsilius of Padua and "the Truth of History". Oxford University Press, USA, June 15, 2006. ISBN 9780199291564
  • Gewirth, Alan. Marsilius of Padua (Two Volumes in One). Ayer Co Publications, 1979.
  • Marsilius of Padua, Brett, Annabel (ed.), Geuss, Raymond (Series Editor), and Skinner, Quentin. Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of the Peace (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition, 2005. ISBN 9780521789110

External Links

All links retrieved November 6, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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