Of darkness (?) into Light – The influence of medieval thought in the contemporary order


The decline of Western Roman Empire, after barbarian occupation in 476 A.D. put western society in a deep plunge into the “Dark Ages”: the beginning of Middle Ages. This time period is known for representing a delay in culture and science in Europe, because of the submission of Catholic Church. However, much of medieval thought is present in our culture nowadays, and can be noticed in many aspects, like family’s moral, education system and part of the philosophic thought.

Rome, capital of the western part, held commercial routes for all over Europe, and between these routes founded cities and provided them economically. With the decline of the western part of the Empire, urban population migrated to the countryside, settling in feuds, which had an unique structure, compared to the ancient cities of the Empire. In feuds, the seigneur gave protection to the servants (against intrusion, robbery, disorder), and they paid with their work (VICENTINO, 2001, p. 104).

The end of the Empire did not mean the end of monarchs, just a change in their way of rule and social position. Thus, monarch’s figure was completely detached from politics and connected with sacred, acting by bringing harmony, integrating natural to supernatural. In practice, the king was a seigneur who maintained relations of suzerainty and vassalage and who held a symbolic function. Besides, the “legal disunity” between feuds decreased the power of action of these kings.

In the first centuries of Middle Ages the insularity of feuds prevailed, which started to the end from 11th century, with military’s conquests of the Latin west. At the same time, the Hungarian’s invasions ceased with the resulting spatial homogeneity and the contact with ancient knowledge is reestablished – hitherto held by Arabs. With this, there were founded the translator’s schools, the beginning of the first universities (LOPES, 2006, p. 28).Universidades da idade média

Universities started from the need to rationalize concerns previously explained only by the Church, however not going against this logic – Church’s interests still manipulated them. In this sense the Middle Ages create a philosophical point of view: the Platonic thesis of St. Augustine (354–430 A.D.) stood out at the begging, defending the existence of a perfect world, ideal and parallel to the physical world (metaphysical), predominantly from the 5th century until the end of 11th; and sometime later there is St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), defender of Aristotle’s ideas in which someone, initial, perfect, universal and timeless was the greatest force in the universe, predominating from 12th century until the middle of 15th. Saint Augustine, writer of the book “City of God” (De Civita Dei, published in 426 A.D.), defended the existence of two distinct worlds in pagan theories: “there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind.” (La Ciudad de Dios, XIV, 1).”

St. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, defended the existence of three classes of law: the first would be eternal and handled on the existing order of the universe, being a combination of all understandable sciences; the second class would be the natural laws, divine revelations for men by granting a small part of His knowledge, and the last would be related to positive laws, created by men and, thereafter, unfair and imperfect – created by equally imperfect and unfair beings.

Thereby, there is a stronger theoretical basis of the Canon Law. At beginning this branch worried only with religious aspects and ruling life in the ecclesiastical community, aiming society sometimes, however. Lately, Church assumes ordinary’s life affairs e judge them by the Ecclesiastical Courts, reaching its height in the holy inquisition’s practices.

In the transition for Modern Age, it will be the thought of William of Ockham (1285-1347), from nominalist school, which will stand out against St. Thomas Aquinas: he linked divine will and reason to the natural right – the law is nothing but an order of the reason, created by who cares of community and promulgated it, Ockham unliked faith and reason, secularizing the natural law (ALVES, 2009, p.99).

William of Ockham is also known for elaborating the logical principle which bears the name of Ockham’s Razor. This principle states that every phenomenon must hold just the necessary premises for its explanation and discard the others. It is often designated by the Latin expression: Parsimoniae (Law of Parsimony):entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” (entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity). It is recommended, therefore, that the explanatory theory explain the fewest number of assumptions and assumed entities.

At the beginning a reductionist principle of nominalist philosophy, is now seen as one of the heuristics maximum (general rule) which advises savings, thrift and simplicity, especially in scientific theories. By this it is noticeable a forgetfulness of divine power in theory. However, the medieval naturalist thought in theory played a crucial role as historical precedent of human and fundamental rights.

St. Thomas Aquinas, by treating the conception of equality between mankind (before God), was clear about the existence of two distinct orders (the natural and positive law), besides, believed in human dignity as a crucial virtue (which would lately influence Renaissance thoughts, like the model of human personality as intrinsic virtue). On the other hand, with the nominalism  of Ockham and the study of the human individualism origin, there is the development of the theory of subjective rights, encouraging future debates about the existence of fundamental and universal human rights (ALVES, 2009, p.101).

Therefore, it is undeniable the influence of Middle Ages in modern and contemporary conceptions of science, looking for reflections about fundamental and universal human rights much in vogue in the international legal scene.



GROSSI, Paolo. “Da sociedade de sociedades à insularidade do estado entre medievo e idade moderna” In: Revista Seqüência, 2007, no. 55, p. 9-28.

VICENTINO, Cláudio. História para Ensino Médio: História Geral e do Brasil. Volume Único/ Cláudio Vicentino, Gianpaolo Dorigo. – São Paulo: Scipione, 2001. Série Parâmetros.

LOPES, José Reinaldo de Lima. Curso de História do Direito/ José Reinaldo Lima Lopes, Rafael Mafei Rabelo Queiroz, Thiago dos Santos Acca. São Paulo: Método, 2006.

FRANCO JÚNIOR, Hilário. A Idade Média: Nascimento do Ocidente. Hilário Franco Júnior. 2ª  2. ed. rev. e ampl. São Paulo : Brasiliense, 2001.

ALVES, Rodrigo Vitorino Souza. Artigo publicado na Revista CEPPG –número 20 – 1/2009 – ISSN 1517 -8471 – Páginas 89 À 102 . Autor: . Rodrigo Vitorino Souza Alves. 2009.

VILLEY, Michel . Filosofia do Direito: Definições e Fins do Direito: os Meios do Direito; tradução de Márcia Valéria Martinez de Aguiar. 2ªed. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2008.


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