Emergency powers and constitutional change 
in the late Middle Ages


In: Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis / Revue d'Histoire du Droit / The Legal History Review
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  • 1 Faculteit der Rechtsgeleerdheid, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Postbus 1030, 1000 BA Amsterdam, The Netherlands


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This article gives an account of late medieval theories and practices of emergency powers. More particularly, it examines the relation between emergency powers and constitutional change. It thus seeks to explain how, in the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, European rulers began using their emergency powers to gradually expand their fiscal and legislative competences at the expense of local authorities and the church. As is demonstrated in this article, it was essentially the normalization of emergency powers that made the transition towards a more centralized government possible. This can be explained by a combination of factors, including the government’s claim to an exclusive right to judge what constituted a public necessity, the new focus on prevention and preparation for future necessities, and the increasing identification of necessity with more general claims to ‘public utility’ and the ‘common welfare’.


  • 16

    Cf. F. Saint-Bonnet, L’état d’exception, Paris 2001, p. 121.

  • 34

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 321.

  • 35

    Cf. Post, Studies, p. 306.

  • 41

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 284.

  • 43

    Jacobi, Practica aurea (supra, n. 24), p. 293–294, 65, 1 and 9.

  • 44

    Jacobi, Practica aurea, p. 294, 65, 9: ‘Item, eadem ratione, imminente necessitate propter guerram, poterit de proximis nemoribus scindere arbores, et de domibus capere ligna, et locū palis munire, et palinas facere, cum eadem sit? ratio’.

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  • 46

    Saint-Bonnet, L’état d’exception (supra, n. 16), p. 141.

  • 61

    Brown, Cessante causa (supra, n. 52), p. 570.

  • 66

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 273. Compare also Brian Tierney’s analysis of Accursius’s reading of D. 1,3,31: ‘For Accursius the emperor was “loosed from the laws” only in the sense that there existed no legal machinery for bringing him to justice if he broke them. He did not associate the words legibus solutus with any ideas of arbitrary government (…). He never argued that it could be licit for an emperor to break the law, nor would he have countenanced such suggestion (…). Fidelity to the law which was required of all men, had to be maintained in the case of the Prince alone through internal rather than external discipline’: B. Tierney, ‘The prince is not bound by the laws’, Accursius and the origins of the modern state, Comparative studies in society and history, 5 (1963), p. 392.

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  • 67

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 272–273.

  • 68

    Post, Studies, p. 324.

  • 69

    Post, Studies, p. 218 and 324. However, with regard to the English context, Post mentions a few examples of emergency taxes that were refused. For instance, in 1242, when Henry III attempted to levy extra-ordinary taxes to finance his military campaign against Louis IX, the magnates refused their consent, arguing that the king was wrong about the alleged necessity, since a military campaign overseas (in France) could not be justified by the ‘necessity of defending the realm’: ibid., p. 321. Examples dealing with the French context are discussed by Brown, Cessante causa (supra, n. 52), p. 571 ff.

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  • 70

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies (supra, n. 5), p. 284–291.

  • 71

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 284.

  • 72

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 285.

  • 73

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 286.

  • 74

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 286.

  • 75

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 288.

  • 76

    Kantorowicz, The king’s two bodies, p. 286.

  • 81

    Saint-Bonnet, L’état d’exception (supra, n. 16), p. 148.

  • 83

    Jacobi, Practica (supra, n. 24), p. 277, 63, 38.

  • 85

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 117.

  • 87

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 157.

  • 88

    Saint-Bonnet, L’état d’exeption (supra, n. 16), p. 152.

  • 89

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 116.

  • 90

    Post, Studies, p. 156.

  • 91

    Post, Studies, p. 18.

  • 92

    Post, Studies, p. 317–318.

  • 93

    Post, Studies, p. 22. An interesting example is the 14th-century jurist Philip of Leyden, who, in an important treatise dedicated to the Count of Holland, emphasizes that the ‘cause of preserving the state [causa conservationis publicae rei]’ overrides all private interests, privileges and immunities. The ‘prince’ may thus impose extra-ordinary taxes on church property for the ‘defense of the fatherland and the public welfare [defensio patriae et salus publica]’. Indeed, the church is expected to give a good example by submitting to these taxes voluntarily. Philippus de Leyden, De cura reipublicae et sorte principantis, eds. R. Fruin and P.C. Molhuysen, The Hague 1915, casus VI, p. 36–38.

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  • 94

    Cf. Pennington, The prince and the law (supra, n. 4), p. 82–83.

  • 95

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 318.

  • 98

    Thus, in 1297, the clergy of Reims, in a letter to the pope, accepted that ‘all privilege, excuse and exception ceased [omni privilegio, excusatione et exceptione cessantibus]’, if the king demanded an emergency subsidy ‘for the defense of the realm and the fatherland [ad defensionem regni et patriae]’. Letter quoted in Wieruszowski, Vom Imperium zum nationalen Königtum (supra, n. 4), p. 173.

  • 99

    Canon 46 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) prescribed that ‘if the bishop with his clergy should perceive such necessity or utility and without compulsion decide that the aid of the churches ought to be enlisted to meet the needs where the resources of the lay people do not suffice, let the aforesaid lay people accept such assistance humbly, devoutly, and with gratitude. However, on account of the boldness of some, let them first consult the Roman pontiff, to whom it belongs to attend to common needs’.

  • 100

    Post, Studies (supra, n. 4), p. 18.

  • 101

    Post, Studies, p. 19.

  • 107

    Saint-Bonnet, L’état d’exception (supra, n. 16), p. 153, n. 1.

  • 111

    Strayer, Defense of the realm (supra, n. 109), p. 294–295.

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