Authority, Concept of

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AUTHORITY, CONCEPT OF. From the Latin auctoritas, the term "authority" was first applied to the Roman emperors, indicating that the emperor not only had political dominion but was also perfect in his person in every respect and deserved obedience and imitation for that reason. In the medieval and early modern eras it had the meaning of identifying men who had predominance in the different areas of human society and were to be esteemed and complied with. In politics it was applied to the Holy Roman emperor; in religion, to the pope; in the family, to the father. All drew on the authority of God over creation. In the areas of culture and learning it referred to those men from the ancient world who were regarded as models in the scholarly disciplines and the arts. Authority was deemed necessary for a well-ordered society, and challenges to authority in any sphere were met with fierce resistance. Authority could be and usually was delegated or transferred.


In the Middle Ages the title of emperor (from Latin imperator ) held the sense of 'possessing universal authority', but whether that meant dominion over the entire world or just over Christendom was much debated. The emperor delegated a portion of his plenitudo potestatis ('fullness of power') to kings and princes to help him fulfill his duties of safeguarding the Catholic faith and maintaining peace and stability. When Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the West in 800, he was seen as the direct successor to the authority of the Roman emperors. The Holy Roman Empire thus created eventually became associated with Germany, and by 1500 the term "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" indicated the limited extent of the emperor's jurisdiction. With their greater historical awareness, the Italian humanists recognized that the Roman Empire had ceased to exist with the Germanic invasions, and they discarded the Holy Roman emperor's universalist pretensions. The kings of Europe also rejected them, following the lead of the French monarchs, who soon after 1300 were claiming to be "emperor in his own realm." Under Charles V (ruled 15191556) with his vast ranges of domains, the emperor's universalist claims were briefly resurrected, but by 1600 it was clear that political authority was held by a broad range of rulers of whom the emperor was only one, ruling lands in Central Europe. Although in parts of Europe, especially France with its Salic law (which restricted royal succession to males), the argument that women should not exercise political authority prevailed, blood right usually trumped gender rules, and early modern Europe had several female rulers who exercised plenitudo potestatis.


The papacy claimed authority in respect to religion. Christ had given the keys to the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter (Matthew 16: 1819), and the popes, his successors as bishop of Rome, held them absolutely. The pope delegated authority to administer the local churches to the bishops, although he did not necessarily choose them, and he empowered the theologians to interpret doctrine. Whether the pope had supremacy over the emperor or had coequal authority with him was a major point of contention throughout the Middle Ages. The papacy's victory over the emperor in the thirteenth century was undercut both by the rise of the national kingdoms and by the crisis in the papacy itself called the Great Schism (13781417). When the rival popes proved incapable of solving the split in the church, it was proposed that the general council was superior to the papacy and had the power to impose a solution. The Council of Constance in 1417 successfully ended the Great Schism, but the restored papacy prevailed over the theory of conciliarism (which held that the council had authority over the church) in the century between Constance and the beginning of the Reformation. Martin Luther (14831546) appealed to a free general council presided over by the emperor to settle the issues he had raised, but the papacy succeeded in preventing the meeting of a council that it did not control. The challenge to papal authority posed by Luther and by Protestantism in general, however, went far beyond embracing conciliarism. Only the Bible, sola scriptura, could serve as authority in religion. The papacy, the councils, the right to interpret doctrine delegated to the Scholastic theologians, were human traditions that had no basis in Scripture. Every individual human was capable of understanding Scripture if it was read with an open mind and a pure heart. The Catholic Church responded largely through the Council of Trent (15451563), which reaffirmed the traditional structure of authority in religion.


The wielders of imperial and papal authority were always males. Their authority was often seen as analogous to or based upon the power of the father in the family. The father or the head of the household had authority over his wife, children, servants, and employees; they were expected to obey, honor, and submit to him. The exact nature of patriarchal authority was vigorously debated, but all agreed that the duty of the father, and secondarily of the mother, was first of all to teach children the true faith, how to be productive, thrifty, and cooperative, and to submit to higher authority. Also debated was whether a widow could serve as the head of the household after her husband died. The argument that such authority was exclusively male was undercut by the practice of allowing widows in most of Europe to manage their households, including their sons until they married and formed their own households.


Authority in the scholarly disciplines and the arts was different from political, religious, and familial authority in that it was not seen as based on divine and natural law. Certain ancients had reached the pinnacle of knowledge and expertise, and all that remained for those who followed was to understand and imitate their achievements. Plato and Aristotle both had that status in philosophy, creating tension between Platonists and Aristotelians. Other examples included Cicero for rhetoric, Virgil for epic poetry, Euclid for geometry, Galen for medicine, Ptolemy for astronomy, and Justinian's Corpus juris civilis for law. In art, however, there were rather few examples of ancient art to serve as models, and the names of the artists were largely unknown. The sixteenth century also saw many of these authorities come under attack. Petrus Ramus (15151572), for example, sought to displace Aristotle as the philosophical authority, while Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) and Galileo Galilei (15641642) more successfully undermined Ptolemy's authority in astronomy, beginning the early modern intellectual revolution.

See also Divine Right Kingship ; Family ; Holy Roman Empire ; Law ; Papacy and Papal States ; Reformation, Protestant ; Sovereignty, Theory of ; Theology .


Allan, George. The Importances of the Past: A Meditation on the Authority of Tradition. Albany, N.Y., 1986.

Evans, G. R. Problems of Authority in the Reformation Debates. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Griffiths, Paul, et al., eds. The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England. New York, 1996.

Kristeller, Paul. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanistic Strains. Rev. ed. New York, 1961.

Wilks, Michael. The Problem of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K., 1964.

Frederic J. Baumgartner