Conscience and the law in Thomas More

Brian Cummings*

*Corresponding author for this work

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No figure in the early modern period is more identified with an ideal of personal conscience than Thomas More. However, the figure of More in modern imagination is almost completely at variance with the view of historians. Indeed, according to this consensus, far from being radically modern, More's understanding of conscience is carefully orthodox and conservative, in line with the scholastic concept of synderesis as developed by Bonaventure and Aquinas. This essay re-examines the scholastic inheritance while also placing More's thought in the context of the legal framework of conscience, especially its place in the court of chancery, where More worked on a daily basis. By considering new pressures on the idea of conscience both within late medieval and Reformation theology, and within the new legal theories of More's contemporary St German, the essay suggests that More's thinking is more ambiguous and yet also more potentially radical than is supposed in revisionist commentary. Nowhere is the complexity of More's thinking more evident than in the last letters of his life, written in prison, where he uses the word with extraordinary frequency and depth of understanding.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)463-485
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of the Society for Renaissance Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009


  • Chancery
  • Conscience
  • Heresy
  • Law
  • Scholastic theology
  • Synderesis

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