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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of Thomas Aquinas

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris, 16th Century miniature. Aquinas spent much of his career at the University of Paris.  (Wikimedia Commons)Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris, 16th Century miniature. Aquinas spent much of his career at the University of Paris. (Wikimedia Commons) St. Thomas Aquinas lived in a time of great intellectual and political upheaval, which helped set his scholarly agenda.  Shortly before he began his studies, the works of Aristotle – long mostly lost to the West and preserved only by Muslim and Byzantine scholars – began to be reintroduced to Christian Europe.  With its rationalistic, systematic, and pagan doctrines, the new philosophy risked undermining the church’s intellectual dominance.  Aquinas, following in the footsteps of his teacher, Albertus Magnus, dedicated most of his life to incorporating Aristotelean thinking into the mainstream of Christian teaching as the solution to its theological conundrums.  That project can only be understood alongside the emergence of the first universities, the increase in contact with non-Western societies, and the papacy’s attempts to centralize its power, all of which conditioned Aquinas’ work.  Thomas’ concern with the relationship between divine law, natural law, and human law, evident in De regimine principium and Summa theologiae is best unkerstood against the backdrop of a rapidly centralizing and politically reorganizing Europe, overlaid with conflicting sovereignties.  


Expansion & Integration

Thomas Aquinas lived at the peak of a demographic and economic boom (c. 1000-1350 CE) that saw the burgeoning rural population of Northwestern Europe provide a broad agricultural base for accelerating urbanization and for the growing ambitions of lords, kings, and churchmen. In Robert Bartlett’s phrase, these centuries witnessed “the making of Europe:” the consolidation of a “Latin Christian” culture and institutions, spread by the movements of conquerors, missionaries, and settlers. The thirteenth century in particular is considered an era of “expansion”: of the power of central government, the range and volume of overseas trade, an international “high culture” rooted in French literary and artistic styles, and especially of Latin Christians into territories abroad.  In 1204, for instance, the French and Venetian leaders of the Fourth Crusade divided the Byzantine Empire among themselves, and by 1252, all of Iberia except the southern kingdom of Granada was controlled by Christian rulers. Yet these events coincided with growth and rapid change beyond Europe as well, including the establishment of the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt in 1250 and the rapid ascendency of the Mongol Empire stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea region by the 1260s. The result was a century of exceptional connection between regional trade circuits across the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent beginning in Thomas’ own lifetime.  Ideas took on a new importance as they moved with greater volume and velocity across greater distances.  As the institutions they moved through became increasingly established, they took on greater importance as tools for organization and control.

Law & Authority

Political life in Thomas’ era was dominated by strong, centralizing rulers who backed up their increasingly grand claims to authority with administrative, military, and cultural might. In France, King Louis IX  (r. 1226-1270) expanded his power not only by increasing taxation and royal oversight of local officials, but also by incorporating new lands into French royal domains, including areas conquered during the Albigensian Crusade.  In Thomas’ native Italy, not then a unified country, the longstanding conflict between papal and imperial partisans (the so-called Guelfs and Ghibellines) reached new heights of bitterness.  With his obstinate personality, his affinity for Islamic learning and culture, and a power base in southern Italy at the doorstep of the papal states, the Emperor Frederick II (1198 - 1250) earned an international reputation as the Anti-Christ himself. In opposing Frederick, Popes Gregory IX (r. 1227-1241) and Innocent IV (r. 1243-54) advanced such a sweeping vision of their own authority over the entire Christian world that it is now often identified simply as a theory of “papal monarchy.”  

The centralization of political power spurred a growing legalism as rulers made their claims over their subjects and against each other in an increasingly refined language of jurisdiction, sovereignty and right. The papacy was a leader in promulgating and systematizing laws, and in standardizing practices in its courts throughout Latin Christendom. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX released the first official compilation of decretals, containing over 2000 papal letters clarifying points of church law. Kings, too, used the law to shape many facets of life in their realms. For instance, French king Louis IX’s reform ordinances established royal judges, regulated currency and standards of ethics for his officials, and forbade blasphemy, gambling, prostitution, and jousting. During these years, jurists from the University of Bologna developed a framework of legal principals both from church or “canon” law and from civil or “Roman” law as codified in the sixth-century Digest of the Emperor Justinian. Combined with elements of feudal law, these principles made up a common legal framework, the ius commune, that shaped legal practice and legislation across Continental Europe.

Religious Movements & Dissent

Thirteenth century religious life was shaped by a spirit of renewal and a zealousness among the laity that the institutional Church both promoted and struggled to control. Troubled by religious movements such as the Waldensians, Cathars, and Paterines, the papacy took new measures to meet the spiritual needs of lay people, and to define and enforce religious orthodoxy. Most famously, the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated that all Christians take part in the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist at least once a year. Thomas’ own Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 to combat the Cathars with persuasive preaching and exemplary sanctity. Both the Order of Preachers – better known as the Dominicans – and the Franciscans (founded in 1221) circulated among the common people with a missionary energy modeled on the apostles themselves. However, these so-called “mendicant friars” were also the main papal inquisitors: ad hoc judges sent to seek out and prosecute heresy beginning in the aftermath of the brutal Albigensian Crusade in Languedoc (1209-1229). The goal of the inquisition was to convert – not kill – the heterodox, but “stubborn” heretics were turned over to secular officials for execution.  In 1252, the papacy made it legal to use torture while interrogating suspected heretics for the first time.   The growing concern for Christian orthodoxy coincided with increasing pressure on Jewish communities as well, including provisions at Lateran IV requiring Jews (and Muslims) to wear distinctive clothing. In 1240, Jewish theologians were forced to defend the Talmud in a public debate in front of King Louis IX, a futile effort that preceded the burning of hundreds of condemned Jewish religious manuscripts in the streets of Paris. According to historian R.I. Moore, this increasingly harsh treatment of religious minorities and other marginalized groups is one element of new obsession with purity and rigorous social boundaries that resulted in “the formation of a persecuting society” in Latin Christendom by the later thirteenth century.

The University of Paris

By around 1200, the loosely organized schools of eleventh-century Paris had produced a legally-recognized, self-governing corporate body of scholars from many nations (a universitas) now considered the second oldest university in Europe.  The University of Paris, where Aquinas spent the bulk of his academic career, and the even-older University of Bologna were the two preeminent educational institutions in the thirteenth century, and Paris was the undisputed center of Christian theological learning in particular. The characteristic intellectual method of the schools, or “scholasticism,” involved writing detailed commentaries and giving lectures on the Bible and other authoritative books, often with the goal of resolving apparent contradictions between authorities through the use of dialectical reasoning. The schools fostered a lively culture of oral disputation, and teachers at Paris were required to give regular public debates. 

Intellectual differences were often entangled with the vicious power struggles at the University of Paris between students and masters, the school and town citizens, the faculties of arts and of theology, the traditional secular clergy and the new flood of mendicants during the thirteenth century. These conflicts sometimes played out through strikes, riots, accusations of heresy, and splinter groups departing to start new schools. During his time in Paris, Thomas participated in a fierce controversy over the appropriate relationship between Christian theology and non-Christian philosophy – revelation and reason – as the rediscovered works of Aristotle were harmonized with Christian teaching. Indeed, before Thomas’ writings became accepted as a standard of Catholic orthodoxy, some of his ideas were even among the 219 propositions condemned and forbidden by the Bishop of Paris in 1277. 

We need to understand Aquinas as writing, then, in a time of heightened stakes, about questions of tremendous religious, political, legal, and social importance.  The church sought to defend itself from pagan philosophy, even as it tried to crush heresy and establish its sovereignty against secular rulers.  These later tried to centralize their own power, while a population explosion and expanded trade networks reshaped the very societies they ruled.  Throughout it all, ideas took on a new importance and sophistication, as concepts of law, right, truth and sovereignty constituted the boundaries between the sacred and profane – the see of the Church and the spaces of the kings and men and the new institutions they set up.

Aquinas lived at the heart of these debates.  The mendicant order of which he was part and the university in which he worked were products of these tensions, veritable sites of contest.  His thought addressed itself directly to the problems his life raised.  It speaks to us now precisely insofar as the problems he faced remain real for us.


Written by Jay Gundacker and Noah Rosenblum, Department of History,  Columbia University

Works Consulted

Norman Kretzman and Eleonore Stump, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas. Cambridge UP, 1993

Jean-Pierre Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work. Ed. Robert Royal. Catholic University of America, 1996

David Abulafia, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. V (c.1198-1300). Cambridge UP, 1999

Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe. Princeton UP, 1994

Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350. Oxford UP, 1991

R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950 - 1250. 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007