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By Bruce Buchan, Lisa Hill (auth.)

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5 We argue here that corporeal metaphors for political bodies in Medieval Christian thought privileged notions of corruption as morally, spiritually and physically degenerative. 7 We argue, however, that Medieval writers did have a lively awareness of the spiritual, moral and political dangers of prevalent forms of corruption (such as bribery, simony and venality), but these problems were not traced to politics as such, but to sinful human nature. The lack of a clearly defined concept of political corruption in Medieval political thought was at least partly attributable to the prevalence of Biblical representations of corrupt activities as signs of spiritual and physical decay, debility, disease or death.

Bribes or gifts? Despite all the legal strictures and high-minded moralising about bribery, the distinction between a gift and a bribe seems to have been very unstable in the classical period. In this murky atmosphere, even men of honour could make an honest mistake: take the case of Julius Bassus, a former governor charged by the Senate with having ‘naively and unguardedly accepted things from the provincials as a friend of theirs’. His accusers described these tributes as ‘thefts and plunder’ whereas Bassus himself referred to them as ‘gifts’.

John T. Noonan posits the average at around four: that of high morality, that of the written law, that of the law as it is enforced and that of common practice. In Rome and Athens, it is often hard to discern which standard is being used when dealing with any particular case of bribery,227 and the evidence suggests that all four were often operating at the same time. 228 As Taylor notes, making profit from political office was ‘to some extent acceptable . . 231 In other words, the law says one thing, custom another; but the law in practice gives way to custom most of the time.

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