Giles of Rome (ca. 1247-1316)

Aegidius Romanus, more commonly known as Giles of Rome, was one of the most influential of high papalist theologians in the latter half of the thirteenth century and early part of the fourteenth.[1] Born in or around the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1247, he became a member of the Augustinian Order of Hermits around 1260. His advanced education in the fields of civil and canon law took place at the University of Paris, where he sat under the teaching of Thomas Aquinas himself from 1269 to 1272. To many of his contemporaries he was known as Doctor fundatissimus (most established doctor), Doctor beatus (most fortunate Doctor), and Doctor verbosus (most verbose Doctor). His writings include treatises on various matters of Christianized Aristotelian philosophy (such as the Theorems On Being and Essence, Errors of the Philosophers, and commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and On the Soul), and two important works on ecclesiology (On the Governance of Rulers, and On Ecclesiastical Power). Interestingly, Giles was thought of so highly that he was actually made a Doctor of his Order while he was still alive.

Giles’ life would be one of almost continual controversy. Between 1276 and 1286, he fought with Henry of Ghent over some rather abstruse philosophical distinctions about essence and existence. In the climate of suspicion that initially prevailed regarding Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle and Christian faith, Giles became caught up in the condemnation in 1277 by Bishop Tempier of 219 philosophical-theological propositions. Asked to recant, he refused and was put out of the University. He would remain under suspicion of heresy until around 1285, when in the course of being re-examined by the Paris theology faculty at the request of Pope Honorius IV, he actually did make a retraction and was restored. Returning to the University of Paris at that time, he lectured as professor of theology until 1292. In that year he became the Prior-General of the Augustinian Order. Three years later, Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) made him the Archbishop of Bourges. In this last position he participated in the conflict over Pope Celestine IV’s abdication (which had called into doubt the legitimacy of Boniface VIII’s election). Giles took Boniface’s side against the Colonna cardinals, writing the tract On the Renunciation of the Papacy in 1297.

Giles’ work On Ecclesiastical Power is especially important because it was composed at the height of the conflict between Boniface VIII and King Philip the Fair of France (1268-1314) which closed out the thirteenth century and ushered in the fourteenth. The work seems to have been completed prior to the promulgation of Boniface’s bull Unam Sanctam (1302), and in fact was used by the pope as a source for composing the bull. Giles dedicated the work to Boniface and with most ardent language defends his hierocratic claims of authority against the ongoing challenges from the temporal power. He argues strenuously that all temporal authority is subservient to the pope, and that as a corollary, everything that can be said of the Church herself is actually a statement about the pope as the Church’s solitary and unaccountable absolute monarchical head.

It is possible that Giles went farther in his view of papal supremacy than Boniface himself. While Boniface assured Philip IV that he had not meant to usurp the king’s power but only to say that kings were subject to the pope by reason of sin (ratione peccati), Giles wrote that the pope actually did possess the material sword as well: “not to use, but to command” (non ad usum, sed ad nutum).[2] In this respect, Giles actually turns his back on the newer, and in many ways more realistic, theories of authority unleashed by Aquinas’ Christianized Aristotelianism.[3] Instead, he advocates the older, Neoplatonic synthesis of St. Augustine as it had come to be expounded through the philosophical matrix of Pseudo-Dionysius, historical frauds such as the Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals, and the hierocratic papalist theory of Pope Gregory VII.[4] A few samplings of Giles’ thought will serve to illuminate his mind on these points:

temporal goods are instruments for the support of and at the disposal of spiritual goods…temporal things are never well ordered unless ordered to spiritual things, because corporeal nature is ordered universally to the spiritual…[5]

Accordingly, priestly power and especially the pope’s power, which are known to have dominion over our soul, have authority and dominion over our bodies and temporal things ordered to bodies.[6]

…our souls, our bodies, and all our temporal goods are under the control of Peter and consequently under the control and governance of the pope, who is known to have succeeded Peter in the position of power and control in the Church.[7]

Near the end of his life, Giles participated in the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), where he supported the abolition of the order of the Knights Templar. Interestingly, the Council of Vienne also saw the early stirrings of conciliar theory against papal absolutism in the work of William Durandus the Younger.[8] A bit earlier, John of Paris (ca. 1255-1306) had busied himself with defending the supremacy of councils over popes in his On Royal and Papal Power. The tide was turning, if very slowly, against the unwieldy, untraditional, and in the last analysis, unworkable ecclesiopolitical theories of the popes of the High Middle Ages. Men such as Giles of Rome, though supremely confident in their rhetoric, actually represented the first of a dying system.

For all the valiant efforts of Giles (and a few others like him, such as James of Viterbo and Augustinus Triumphus), however, the newer theories of limited power would prove increasingly resistant to papalist pretensions. For example, the work of Marsilius of Padua (1270-1343) would soon do a great deal to undermine Giles’ kind of hierocraticism, and the shattering events of the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy, the Western Schism, and the Conciliar Movement would all flow into the final collapse in the mid-sixteenth century of papalist hegemony over Christian culture. Giles died in the year of the incarnate Word 1316.

1.Information for this sketch has been drawn from several sources, including Frederick Copleston S.J.’s A History of Philosophy Volume II: Medieval Philosophy [New York: Doubleday, 1993], pp. 460-465; Silvia Donati, “Giles of Rome,” in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, eds. Jorge J.E. Garcia and Timothy B. Noone [Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2003], pp. 267-271; The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy, ed. Arthur A.S. McGrade [Cambridge University Press, 2003]; The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts Volume II: Ethics and Political Philosophy, eds. Arthur Stephen McGrade, John Kilcullen, and Matthew Kempshall [Cambridge University Press, 2001], pp. 200-215; R.W. Dyson, trans., Concerning Ecclesiastical Power [Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1986]; and On Ecclesiastical Power, By Giles of Rome, trans. Arthur P. Monahan, [Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990 ↩
2.Copleston, op. cit., pg. 464. ↩
3.Indeed, Copleston observes that although Giles is often thought of as a follower of Thomas, he was actually an independent thinker: “He did not hesitate to criticise Thomist positions or to deviate from them when he wished to…”, op. cit, pg. 461. ↩
4.R.W. Dyson observes this of Giles’ On Ecclestiastical Power: “Entirely ignoring the recovery of Aristotle and the revaluation of politics presided over by Aquinas, it embraces an inveterately old-fashioned ‘political Augustinianism’…,” op. cit., pg. xiii. ↩
5.Monahan, On Ecclesiastical Power, By Giles of Rome, pp. 73-74. ↩
6.Ibid., pp. 74-75. ↩
7.Ibid., pg. 76 ↩
8.See other entries on this site under that worthy’s name. ↩

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