In this essay, Paul Sigmund introduces the natural law thinking of the late medieval period and its place in the larger natural law tradition. The 14th through 16th centuries saw developments in thought about politics and natural law that helped prepare the way for the ideas of the Enlightenment that inspired the American Founders.

Sigmund summarizes the developments in natural law thinking under two headings: 1) greater emphasis on the rights of the individual, especially to property and freedom; and 2) the derivation of the authority of governments not directly from God (the claim of theorists of the “divine right of kings”), but by the intermediary of the consent of the governed. Sigmund then explores various proponents of these views and the historical context of their work.

In the early 1300s, William of Ockham theorized about an individual natural right to property to defend contemporary Franciscan teachings on spiritual poverty. He also used the idea of a “state of nature” (among other notions) to defend rule by consent of the governed in both the Church and the state.

The 15th-century papal schism in the Catholic Church provided another occasion for the development of government by consent through the conciliarist movement, as did the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. These religious controversies in turn inspired innovations in political theory. Figures like the Catholic Nicholas of Cusa and the Anglican Richard Hooker presented arguments for freedom, natural equality, and government by consent that would come to have enormous influence on political thought.

As you study the source readings, try to determine how these late medieval ideas relate to earlier ideas of natural law, and consider how they may have influenced later political thought.