From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(e) Tyrannicide.

Whether Tyrannicide is lawful or unlawful was a question on which different views were held by theologians. The murder of the Duke of Orleans by orders of the Duke of Burgundy (1407) helped to stir up the controversy. Amongst the dependants of the Duke of Burgundy was a priest, John Parvus (Petit or Le Petit), who accompanied the Duke to Paris, and in a public assembly defended the Duke of Burgundy on the ground that it was lawful to murder a tyrant (1408). Nine propositions selected from this speech were condemned by the Bishop of Paris, by the Inquisition, and by the university (1414). The Duke of Burgundy appealed to Pope John XXIII., while the representatives of France at the Council of Constance were instructed to seek the opinion of the assembly. The discussion of the subject was complicated by political issues. As the Council of Constance was anxious to avoid all quarrels with the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy, or the Emperor, it contented itself with issuing a very general condemnation of Tyrannicide. Before the council closed, however, the question was raised once more in connexion with a book published by the Dominican, John of Falkenberg, who was a strong partisan of the Teutonic Knights in their struggle against the King of Poland, and who maintained that it was lawful to kill the King of Poland. He undertook the defence of Petit’s work, and wrote strongly against the representatives of the University of Paris. The Poles demanded his condemnation, but though he was arrested and detained in prison his book was not condemned by the council. A Dominican chapter held in 1417 repudiated Falkenberg’s teaching.

For a long time the subject was not discussed by Catholic theologians though Tyrannicide was defended by the leading Reformers, including Luther and Melanchthon, but during the religious wars in France and in Scotland it was advocated in theory by some of the French Calvinists such as Languet and Boucher as well as by the Scotch leader, John Knox, and put into practice by their followers against the Duke of Guise and Cardinal Beaton.1 The Jesuits in France were accused of sympathising with this doctrine during the reign of Henry IV., but there was not sufficient evidence to support such a charge. Some of their theologians may have defended the legality of rebellion in certain circumstances, but this was a doctrine in no way peculiar to the Jesuits. The only serious argument brought forward by the opponents of the Jesuits was drawn from a work published by a Spanish Jesuit, Mariana (1536-1624). It was written for the instruction of some of the princes of Spain, and was dedicated to Philip III. In many respects it was an exceedingly praiseworthy work, but the author’s reference to the murder of Henry III. of France and his defence of Tyrannicide, hedged round though it was by many restrictions and reservations, gave great offence in France, and provided the enemies of the Society with a splendid weapon for a general attack upon the entire body. As a matter of fact Mariana’s book did not represent the views of the Jesuits. In 1610 the general, Aquaviva, forbade any of his subjects to defend the teaching on Tyrannicide it contained.

Chapter VI Section (e) Footnote

1 Lecky, The History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, 1913, p. 164.

Chapter VI Section (e) Bibliography

Hergenrother, Katholische Kirche u. Christl. Staat, 1872. Parkinson, Catholic Writers on Tyrannicide (Month, March-April, 1873). Duhr. Jesuiten-Fabeln, 3 auf., pp. 659 sqq.

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