Renaissance Texts and Renaissance Republicanism:

An Editorial and Review Article



I An Editorial ...

  1. Renaissance Forum has been established as an interdisciplinary journal. While it will certainly publish articles that are primarily either historical or literary (rather than both), it is hoped that at least a good proportion of its contents will be given over to writing that tries to build bridges between the two disciplines. In recent years there has been an increasing presence of history in literary studies and of literature in historical studies, some of this work of very high quality, yet in many cases the result has resembled a dialogue of the deaf. The appropriation of one discipline by the other has too frequently been superficial and partial; the work has represented less the flourishing of interdisciplinary study and more the bloody slaughter of one ally by its pretended comrade-in-arms (see further Burgess 1995). Renaissance Forum will, amongst other things, provide a place in which scholars can help to lay the foundations for genuinely interdisciplinary studies, both by advancing argument and by responding to the contributions of others. That, of course, includes the possibility of responding to the present editorial: Renaissance Forum intends to privilege no particular position in the debate; and this editorial should not be mistaken for a statement of editorial policy.
  2. On what basis can good interdisciplinary scholarship be undertaken? Two requirements seem paramount. First, there is an overwhelming need for a prior understanding of the essential differences between the disciplines. It is precisely because that has been lacking that the aspirations for interdisciplinary study have produced such stunted growth. Scholars assimilate other disciplines to their own in ways that minimise what they might have learnt from an encounter with something recognised as alien. Not only in subject-matter, but in aim and method, history and literature have been very different things. What is the point of bridging the gap? Will it serve to achieve the aims of either discipline, or will it achieve the aims of neither? Just possibly, it may do something altogether different. When we have answered those questions, then we confront equally difficult ones about what methods we might employ in seeking to achieve our goals. Facing these questions of disciplinary identity squarely might also help us to realise that, in fact, very often we do not really seek genuinely interdisciplinary knowledge at all. We seek to use other disciplines and the understandings that they generate purely as auxiliaries to our own discipline-bound studies. Furthermore, we might also recognise that for very many people genuinely interdisciplinary work will not be possible because they hold views about the nature of their own work that leave them with no place to engage with another discipline. That is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it can be argued that disciplinary boundaries are in themselves unhealthy or unhelpful. I, at any rate, am not prepared so to argue.
  3. A second requirement for interdisciplinary work is that it should be based on an understanding of both (or all) disciplines that is properly up-to-date. That is a practical more than an intellectual problem. It is hard enough keeping up with the flood of new work and debate in one discipline, let alone in several. Nonetheless, unless he or she does so, a scholar's work will fail the crucial test for interdisciplinary scholarship. It will be so out of touch with one discipline that it will appear ridiculous to practitioners of it, and thus fail in any effort to mediate between the two disciplines. Once again, it will be of interest to and address the concerns only of one's immediate colleagues. There may be nothing wrong with that, but it is not interdisciplinary.
  4. Interdisciplinary work can only provide an occasional and supplementary approach to the Renaissance (unless a case can be made for the need completely to transcend disciplinary boundaries). Yet it is an approach that potentially offers considerable synthetic power, and enables scholars to develop a broader understanding of their subject. Above all - and this is, I think, the chief value of interdisciplinary endeavour - it enables us to face difficult questions about the point of what we are doing within disciplines, and the value of the methods we employ, perhaps as much from habit as from conviction. That is to say, it engenders a methodological self-awareness, of the sort particularly lacking amongst historians at any rate. Such awareness does not necessarily make us better scholars, but it does help us to achieve a clearer understanding of what sort of scholars we are. It gives a consciousness of the sort of questions we generally ask, of why we ask them, and of how we usually go about answering them. But - like the encounter with the past itself - it is a benefit only to be enjoyed when it is recognised as an encounter with the alien, and when we encounter that alien at its best.
  5. Is it possible, then, at any very general level, to make any concrete suggestions about the possibility for interdisciplinary study of the English Renaissance? The place to begin, surely, is with an assessment of the most prominent strengths visible in historical and literary approaches to the English Renaissance. In particular, as this seems to be the most likely ground to be levelled of its enclosures and returned to common ownership, we might examine historical and literary approaches to Renaissance texts. Historians, in general, approach texts in ways that reflect the fact that the discipline of history began as one in which a certain type of political history was taken as the norm. As part of that norm the paradigmatic form of historical explanation, at the level of individual acts, was something that we can call 'intentional' explanation. If anything more complicated was required, then resort could be had to the argument that large numbers of intentional actions produced unintended consequences. It wasn't very sophisticated, but it seemed to work. At least it did until the 1960s, since when history has been vastly diversified and flooded with more elaborate structural forms of explanation. Curiously, though, the flood has not washed away the basic understanding of what history is, and most generalised and philosophical discussions of history as a discipline still discuss the subject in ways that treat as normal the sort of history formed by a narrative of events, i.e. usually the story of intended actions and their confusing interaction.
  6. This background is significant, because probably the dominant historical approach to early modern texts amongst historians of ideas and political thought - at least amongst those of them who are by profession historians - is one based on, or reflected in, the methodological writings of Quentin Skinner (Skinner and Tully 1988). Skinner argued that the act of writing was to be understood as a 'speech act', which in turn was to be understood, like any human action, in terms of the intentions of its author. What is particularly significant about that is that Skinner was explicitly arguing through the 1960s and 1970s that his approach to the history of ideas was an approach that simply laid down the minimum conditions that had to be fulfilled if such a history was to be genuinely historical. That is to say, he saw himself as applying the general rules of historical interpretation to the history of ideas, and thus rescuing it from philosophers and political scientists who knew not what they did. Skinner's work has ensured that for most historians the first - but not necessarily the last - question they ask on approaching a text is: what was its author trying to do in writing this text? In short, they seek in the first instance for intentional explanations.
  7. Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. Nothing prevents historians from going beyond this starting point, and many of them do so. One whose name is frequently bracketed with Skinner's, John Pocock, has indeed laid down some of the ground rules for moving from intentional explanations towards a 'history of discourse' (Pocock 1985, ch. 1). He has shown himself willing, too, to enter into productive dialogue with the Gadamerian methods of (the political scientist) John Gunnell to an extent that has aroused Skinner's suspicions (Pocock 1980a; Gunnell 1980; Pocock 1980b; Skinner and Tully 1988, 326 n.2). Skinner himself has never been blind to the fact, as he has recently put it, that there is no '"divide" between literary and other historical texts' (Skinner 1996, 14), and has shown in exciting detail that Hobbes's philosophy can only be understood when proper attention is paid to the rhetorical devices employed in Leviathan. Nonetheless, when they write histories of ideas - that is to say, histories for which texts form the primary evidence - historians remain strongly inclined to a perspective that rests on intentional explanation. They are histories of influence, in which doctrines are transmitted from one mind to another through time, each user of an idea being understood in terms of his or her intentional activity. In this respect, for example, the 'new' history of political thought associated with Skinner and others produces history of a recognisably traditional sort, its newness resting on the fact that this particular sub-branch of the historical discipline had for long been conducted non-historically.
  8. These remarks are not intended critically. Skinner, Pocock and others have been right to insist on proper historical standards for the writing of the history of ideas. Nonetheless, there are limitations in such an approach; and it is arguable that they would be better recognised if historians paid more attention to the debates about the nature of textuality that have so disturbed their literary colleagues. In particular, many (not all) historians need a greater alertness to the ways in which texts so readily escape the control of their authors. Such an alertness, if it is not taken too far, need not lead to any rejection of Skinnerian methods; but nonetheless those methods do tend to blind some of those who use them to dimensions of their subject that may prove crucial to any full understanding. What I have in mind can be illustrated with reference to a recent, and very distinguished, product of the 'new' history of political thought, Richard Tuck's Philosophy and Government 1572-1651. Tuck's book traces the development and impact of the 'new humanism of Lipsius and Montaigne' throughout Europe (Tuck 1993, 64). I want to pay particular attention to what he says about its impact on England before the Civil War (esp. 104-19). By picking out particular words and phrases in their writing, Tuck is able to suggest that a number of English writers - Hayward, Bacon, Ralegh, possibly Shakespeare, and even Lord Saye and Sele - were readers of the new humanism, and indebted to it for much of their moral and political outlook. Underlying the way in which he does this is the assumption that a few key phrases identify an adherent of a doctrine, and that use of those key phrases, picked up from others, is enough to identify an author as intending to advance a particular set of doctrines, common (with minor qualifications and amendments) to them all.
  9. There are two things wrong with this. One - to which I shall return - is that Tuck looks for no evidence of what other ideas these same authors might entertain; and thus is unable definitively to determine how far the strand which he does identify is central to their thinking. So, at that level, he does not, in fact, assess the full range of evidence necessary for determining an individual writer's intentions. Second - and this point is the more relevant to our present concerns - he pays almost no attention to the question of how people read. It is precisely this emphasis on reading as well as writing, on how people use and misuse, appropriate and domesticate, the texts they read that has been central to at least some of the concern felt by literary scholars with textual indeterminacy. I have no doubt - though I have no room here to prove the point - that, if Tuck had not assumed that when people adopt ideas they do so relatively faithfully, then the evidence he has used would tell a different story, a story of the utter transformation of 'new humanist' ideas when appropriated by English writers who read them in contexts of interpretation very different from the contexts in which they were written (cf. Salmon 1991; Parmelee 1994). It is well known that Bodin, for example, was read in a variety of ways in early Stuart England, many of which have nothing to do with any 'real' Bodin who might be constructed by a modern historian following proper historical methods (Salmon 1959; also Burgess 1996, ch. 3). Again, the context of interpretation differed fundamentally from the context of writing.
  10. The language of meaning-in-context remains Skinner's; but we are learning to broaden it to encompass reading as well as - perhaps more than - writing. Lisa Jardine, especially, has presented some of these points in ways that pose an immediate challenge to historians of English Renaissance culture (Jardine and Grafton 1990; Jardine and Sherman 1994; also Sherman 1990; Sherman 1995; cf. also Patterson 1994). Looking at Gabriel Harvey's marginalia, she and her colleagues have been able to reconstruct in some detail the way in which he read. Harvey was no ordinary reader, but, like John Dee, a professional who read as a public act and according to a brief. Fascinatingly, the readings varied with the brief. Jardine has also, in a study of the way in which Erasmus's reputation was constructed, directed our attention in new ways to the crucial importance of such parts of a text as dedications, introductions and notes, even to their printing histories (Jardine 1993). Here the emphasis is on the other side, on the author's (or editor's or printer's) capacity to manipulate reader-response. But the general result is a complex analysis of the negotiation between publishers, writers and readers out of which a series of meanings emerged. Such an approach has the capacity fundamentally to alter the stories told about ideas in the past with which historians think they are familiar. Historians like Tuck have become prone to a new form of anachronism, one found only amongst the very best historians, which assumes that readers in the past read in the same way that we do, identifying the same essential points in a book, and so on. But, as Jardine and Grafton have put it, 'if we use our own understanding of the salient features of the text of Livy (say) to identify the points of crucial importance to an Elizabethan reader, we are very likely to miss or to confuse the methods and objects at which reading was directed' (Jardine and Grafton 1990, 31).
  11. This is not an argument for rejecting Skinner's emphasis on intention, but for accepting that readers have intentions that often cut across those of authors. Literary scholars might be forgiven for thinking that these remarks hardly constitute any very thorough engagement with the dizzying and liberating world of contemporary literary theory. That is because I believe, and shall now argue, that such engagement is not possible. History as a discipline has, I suspect, a much more solid core identity, based more than anything else on historical method, than the discipline of 'literature'. The difference is revealed as much as anything else by the fact that there is no fully comfortable term for the latter discipline: 'English', 'literature', 'literary studies', 'criticism' all seem not quite adequate. It is the same sort of discomfort revealed by the fact that there is no common term to embrace unproblematically the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English peoples in spite of the fact that they have on occasion formed a single state. (Though at least the discipline of 'English' is not burdened with the misfortune of being labelled by a contradiction in terms, like 'political science'.) It is possible to imagine a different sort of constitution for history (see Jenkins 1991 and Harlan 1989 for programmatic statements; also White 1973; White 1987; and the fairly typical historian's response in Zagorin 1990); but there is little sign that many historians are likely to embrace it. And, indeed, such imagined forms of 'history', which embrace whole-heartedly the implications of literary theory, are really attempts to do history as if it were literature, attempts to refound a discipline on the assumptions current in a different discipline. Miracles happen; but not on that scale.
  12. History's core-identity imposes fundamental restrictions on the range of interdisciplinary liaisons into which it can enter, making the discipline, if not less profligate, then certainly attractive to different partners than English. Central to historians' sense of what they are doing are such things as the documentary record, evidence, verification and falsification, a modest emphasis on generalisation and hypothesis rather than more elaborate model building, and a scepticism concerning (though not necessarily an outright hostility to) the value of theory. One can easily exaggerate this, and certainly not all points apply to all persons. But there is probably an inner core which - de facto, at least - is accepted by all historians from some radical feminists to reactionary empiricists, and which is (indeed) built into what Hexter has called the rhetoric of history (footnote conventions, styles of argument and debate, reviewing habits) (Hexter 1971a, ch. 2; Hexter 1971b). That core is constituted by a feeling that one is more likely to be right by following certain basic rules for using evidence than by ignoring them. The rules include such things as using as much of the evidence as possible, using immediate primary evidence, looking for counter-evidence, and so on. Now, judging by what I have read, these rules are nothing like as deeply entrenched in literary study as they are in history. (That, I stress, is not a criticism: there is no necessary reason why they should be.) Indeed, it is not altogether clear that literary scholars generally agree in seeing themselves engaged in a pursuit for knowledge, in ways that the great majority of historians still do.
  13. Nonetheless, this core identity possessed by history - and, I'm prepared to argue, shared in practice even by many who are overtly scornful of it - results in a situation in which many of the more innovative (the term is not used judgementally, either way) doctrines of post-modern theory can only appear to historians as devices for evading the need to check arguments against evidence. They serve to make the essential task of seeking to falsify one's own arguments almost impossible to carry out. The death of the author (and the consequent demise of intentional explanation), intertextuality, the permanent deferral of solid meaning, Althusserian theories of ideology are devices that - whatever else they do - loosen the controls and restrictions on the interpreter's ingenuity. It is certainly easy to see why many find them liberating; but, equally, there is not much evidence to suggest that many historians hanker after this sort of freedom. As I have argued elsewhere (Burgess 1995), phenomena such as the New Historicism and Cultural Materialism are unlikely to be embraced by historians. Both movements are founded on at least some of the theoretical principles that I have just listed. It is notable that what attempts historians of the English Renaissance have made to embrace literature have had little to do with such things (e.g. Sharpe 1987; Sharpe and Lake1994; Sharpe and Zwicker 1988; Worden 1991b); and the reason boils down to the fact that those movements are not recognisable by historians as history. They constitute dead ends in the search for interdisciplinary co-operation, yet another failed take-over bid.
  14. We are left with the only conclusion that if interdisciplinary co-operation between historical and literary students of the English Renaissance is to occur then it can only do so on territory that recognises both the benefits of literary aproaches to textuality that go beyond the historian's primary focus on semantic content and its intentional explanation, and the concern that accounts of the past be adequately grounded in evidence, and generated by thorough interaction with as much relevant evidence as possible. There is indeed work that offers some of this hope, whatever else may be said about it (Norbrook 1984; Norbrook, in Sharpe and Lake 1994; Smith, 1989; Smith 1994; Patterson 1984; Corns 1992; Zwicker 1993), work that utilises the literary awareness of the problematic nature of textuality and the multivalency of meaning in a culture in ways accessible also to historians. Significantly, most of it is work that is written by literary critics who display only a limited interest in the theoretical perspectives dominant in their own disciplines. Of course, historians would still do things differently; but not that differently. Only when that last clause can be added does the possiblity of genuinely interdisciplinary understanding come into sharp focus.
  15. In his article in the present issue of Renaissance Forum, Martin Coyle raises a central question when he objects that McAlindon's readings of Shakespeare cut him off from us - 'Shakespeare has stopped speaking to us'. Can we construct a relevant past, one that speaks directly to us, while we continue to do justice to its very pastness? That seems to me the crucial question to face if we wish to facilitate the interdisciplinary liaison of history and English. Can the historian's past as it was become the critic's useful past? At least one answer to that is to advocate 'the usefulness of a useless past' (Schuyler 1941), the intellectual and moral benefit to be derived from the study of a place where they do things differently. These questions of similarity and difference, anachronism and continuity, it should be added, have been very thoroughly canvassed by historians for a very long time (Blaas 1978; Novick 1988), and no interdisciplinary rapprochement is likely to succeed without paying as much attention to those debates as to the ones that divide New Historicists from their critics.
  16. Very recently, Kevin Sharpe, in a magisterial survey of recent work on the history of Renaissance culture, looked back over recent developments:
  17. Some eight years ago when I first surveyed a group of books on literary culture and politics, the great promise for early modern history appeared to lie in interdisciplinary studies; in a historicizing of literary texts and a broadening of the range of evidence used by historians. Yet for all the gestures to the interdisciplinary, that promise has not been fulfilled. Here, it is sad for a historian to have to admit, the fault lies almost entirely with academic historians. For, with a few exceptions, historians have not taken up the opportunity or challenge presented by New Historicists and other critics. Nor have they broadened or enriched their jejune conception of political culture. Of the books here under review, therefore, it is those written by authors from disciplines other than history - notably, literary studies - that most excite and stimulate. If historians - rightly - bemoan the critics' failure to historicize closely, it behooves them to join with the best critical scholarship in a truly interdisciplinary program to further explore and explicate the culture of early modern England.
    (Sharpe 1994, 292)
    There is much to agree with here; but I would protest at the degree of blame laid on historians. There are, at any rate, mitigating circumstances. It is true that critics, rather than historians, have done more to facilitate interdisciplinary scholarship. Nonetheless, the sort of historical criticism that has been most discussed in literary circles has not, in fact, shown any real willingness to accommodate historians' history. Yes, we need genuinely interdisciplinary study. But we need also to think carefully about what that actually entails. Renaissance Forum has been founded, in part, to facilitate that thinking.

II ... and a Review

There is possibly one subject more than any other about which historians and critics have much to learn from each other, English Renaissance republicanism. I shall elaborate that point, and provide further elucidation of the general comments made so far in the form of a review of a new book that provides an extremely learned account of humanist and republican thought in England from 1570 to 1640. 

Markku Peltonen. 1995. Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xii + 365 pp. ISBN 0-521-49695-0. £40.00 / US$59.95.

  1. For a good many years historians have assumed that 'civic humanism' had very little place in English political culture between the 1550s and 1656. Before 1558 the Tudor commonwealth writers drew upon Italian humanist thought for their own writings about social and political matters (e.g. Mayer 1989); in 1656 Harrington drew on Machiavelli and the myth of Venice to construct his own republican utopia, Oceana, reintroducing to English political discourse - and ultimately introducing to American - civic humanist themes. In between, the languages of political discussion found in England were overwhelmingly jurisprudential or theological, not humanist. This view was definitively established by the publication in 1975 of one of the great works of twentieth century Anglo-American historiography, John Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment. Pocock explored the stunted capacity in late-Tudor and early-Stuart England for what one scholar called 'civic consciousness' (Hanson 1970), for the Englishman's 'awareness of himself as a political actor in a public realm' (Pocock 1975, 335). Pocock was very careful to explore what capacity there was for Englishmen to think of themselves as political actors (the language of Calvinist Sainthood; the language of custom as a form of collective law-making); he was not blind to the continuing existence of humanist concepts through the period; but the primary emphasis was on the very circumscribed role of those things until Harrington's discovery of classical and Machiavellian citizenship. In all fairness, one might add that Pocock's critics are usually forced to over-simplify his complex and guarded arguments in order successfully to rebut them, and that even Peltonen's careful analysis ultimately does not quite avoid this fault completely.
  2. In his new book, based on vastly impressive research into the political writing of Tudor and Stuart England, Markku Peltonen summarises this orthodoxy (Peltonen 1995, 1-7), and then sets out to demonstrate that it is wrong. It is worth saying that the few voices hitherto raised against the orthodox view have included a disproportionate number of literary scholars (especially Norbrook 1994; Norbrook, in Sharpe and Lake, 1994; Smith 1994, e.g. pp. 9-10), and that Peltonen makes some use of the work done by critics on Shakespeare and Jonson (Peltonen 1995, 145-6, 132-4, 171-2) This may be a case where literary scholars' alertness to subversive and marginal voices has actually enabled them to hear something that was really said, but has been missed by most historians. (Perhaps: reservations on this score will be entered later.) Even the best historians of English republican thought, in contrast, have found at most only a rather ghostly literary republicanism in England before the 1650s (Worden 1981; Worden 1991a; Scott 1988). Perhaps there is more to it than that. If Blair Worden is right - and his imminent work on Sidney's Arcadia will no doubt show that he is - to suggest that, though 'republican ideas might be missing from the political treatises of the generations before the Civil War ... they were often expressed in imaginative literature' (Worden 1991a, 445), then we have to ask what this tells us about the respective functions of political writing and imaginative literature. We would have also to recognise that no full history of political thought in early modern England could be written simply on the basis of examining those works that we identify as belonging to a category 'political writing'. In his contribution to this issue of Renaissance Forum, Derek Hirst has tried to show the 'inter-connectedness' of Restoration political culture, inviting us 'to modify our sense of the nature of public life'. Something like the same invitation can be offered to scholars of Elizabethan and early Stuart culture, though one needs to add the reservation that a central feature of any inteconnectedness we might discover must be the explanation for why it is that imaginative literature and political treatises contain different sorts of political ideas.
  3. Peltonen, it must be said, does not address these questions, though his work reveals clearly enough that the field of Renaissance humanism and republicanism is one that offers great opportunities for interdisciplinary co-operation. His own approach is to face the historians of political thought on their own terrain, and he makes a splendid job of it. In amassing a great array of evidence, Peltonen is able to show beyond all doubt the continual use of a humanist vocabulary in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. His research uncovers a considerable body of humanist writing, in which throughout the period are to be found discussions of vera nobilitas, education, counsel, citizenship, the vita activa, and mixed government. All of these were unmistakably humanist topics; all were analysed in an unmistakably humanist language. In addition to demonstrating this basic continuity of discussion, Peltonen has suggestive insights into the role of the Irish 'margin' in providing space for a much fuller deployment of Machiavellian concepts than was possible in English domestic political analysis. (But could more be said on the role of the colonial 'margin' in doing the same?) He is equally suggestive about the role of urban communities, especially London, in providing a social base for the use of the conceptual fabric of citizenship (cf. Condren 1994, ch. 3).
  4. It is very important that I give proper emphasis to saying that in achieving his central aims Peltonen is overwhelmingly successful. It needs also to be said that he demonstrates a very proper scholarly caution and refuses to push his arguments too far, or to exaggerate the significance of the material that he has discovered. Throughout, Peltonen remains aware that political discourse in the period that he is examining remained dominated by languages other than humanist ones. I want to emphasise these points because I will, in the remainder of this review, suggest that there are ways of incorporating civic humanist and republican elements into a general picture of early modern English political thought that differ from those that Peltonen has chosen to present. Curiously, one might suggest that Peltonen both underplays and overplays his hand. To a very great extent, his book must be the beginning rather than the end of discussion on the subjects that it raises. It points to things usually ignored or overlooked, and does so with such force that we can ignore them no longer. It is as a tribute to the importance of Peltonen's work that the following remarks should be read.
  5. One of the distinctive features of Peltonen's analysis is that he treats the translation of Continental works of political theory into English as an act comparable to the writing of an original English treatise. The result is undeniably illuminating, especially the account of the ways in which the translation of Contarini and Goslicius belongs to the context of the 1590s (102-18). Nonetheless, the way in which Peltonen treats translations suggests that his book is written from a writerly rather than a readerly perspective. That is to say, that he is interested in translations as an act of assertion, not so much as an act of reading and interpretation. He is interested in showing that in certain contexts it became possible and relevant for English writers to present Continental political thought to an English audience. But the thought itself - including those ideas labelled 'civic humanist and republican' - is construed largely as a static body of ideas. People chose to use it or not, as the case may be; but there is little discussion here of the role of humanism in which terms like 'adapt', 'transform', 'assimilate', 'incorporate' or 'modify' might play any role. That can lead to insights: I have no doubt that Peltonen is right, for example, to say that Francis Bacon was only to a very limited degree influenced by Tuck's 'new humanism', but much more by an on-going Ciceronian humanism very little interrupted by the Tacitism of the late sixteenth century. Nonetheless, Peltonen's general approach is not much different from Tuck's. Perhaps, we might add, it works particularly well for self-consciously intellectual figures like Bacon. But, on a broader, front I miss an analysis of the ways in which English writers could assimilate and domesticate humanist and republican themes.
  6. The way in which Peltonen underplays his hand should now be apparent. It is, I suspect, possible to argue that humanist language is much closer to the political 'mainstream' in Tudor and Stuart England than Peltonen allows himself to argue. Reading 'literature' rather than 'political treatises' might in itself suggest that. But it is also possible to suggest that a more integrated view becomes possible if we cease to accept a very polarised view of the perid c.1590 to 1640. There is a tendency - visible in Peltonen's case especially in the remarks that frame his discussion of the Jacobean period (119-24) - to divide almost all politically-engaged writing into two camps. We might call them 'loyalist' (for many that means 'absolutist') and 'oppositional'. The result of such an approach is to close-down our interpretational options, and to blind us to the fact that there were many other purposes that writing and reading could serve. It is natural to suggest that republican and humanist ideas (at least those that were not Tacitist and Lipsian) were naturally oppositional, part of the counter-argument to absolutism. Peltonen is aware that humanist language could be used on both sides of the divide. Yet, in spite of himself, the account of mixed government in Jacobean England tends to suggest a natural affinity between Ciceronian humanism and anti-absolutist argument (177-89) Revealingly, when he turns to the Caroline period, Peltonen outlines the clash between absolutist and contractarian or juristic theories, and then asks 'whether the vocabulary of the humanist tradition was at all employed in these debates' (272, emphasis added). It is a good question; but it should not prevent us from also asking whether examining humanism enables us to see that there were other debates as well. We are too ready to find oppositional voices (that applies even more, perhaps, to literary scholars than to historians); and even more ready to assume that voices not oppositional must therefore be defences of the established order. Such assumptions can impoverish our reading of texts, unless we are as careful to avoid their dangers as Peltonen usually is. If we avoid the temptation to dichotomise, then we might discover that there is much that belongs on a different grid. Elsewhere, I have argued that this is in fact the case with some types of Jacobean humanism (Burgess 1996, 52-62), and reading Peltonen has reinforced that view.
  7. One way of understanding what is going on might be to stress the continuity with early Tudor humanism. The interesting feature of that early humanism is that much of it was in the form of advice. It was, as Peltonen tells us (9), a language of commonwealth reform, and its diagnosis of social and economic ills carefully balanced by a political conformism. This was a politics of persuasion, designed not to oppose and resist, but to succeed by winning over those with power. It is no accident that one of the key groups of people employing commonwealth language in Henrician England was to be found in the circle of Thomas Cromwell. Arguably, later humanism continued some of this. Its emphasis on true nobility, on education, on the active life, was not a language of subversion. Potentially it was a language, when used to construct the ideal of a commonwealth that could flourish under royal dominion, that was of highly integrationist tendencies. Humanist language could provide a way of determining what made the commonwealth flourish. But we need only to construe that as dangerous matter if we think that the crown was opposed to the idea of ruling over a flourishing community of free people. One of the remarkable features of early modern English political discourse was its capacity to accept the symbiosis of unchallengeable irresistible monarchy and a commonwealth with a rich capacity for participation and self-maintenance (cf. Collinson 1990). We misunderstand if we think the two inevitably in conflict. Of course, they could be in conflict, and republican language could be used for oppositional purposes, as Peltonen's account of Thomas Scott should remind us. But if my general sketch has any validity, then it suggests that humanism had a greater potential for - in contemporary jargon - 'mainstreaming' than Peltonen quite allows. That might explain, also, why there was simultaneously (on Peltonen's own evidence) an awful lot of humanism and not much republicanism (Elizabethan republicanism was a phenomenon of the margins; a handful of tracts in Jacobean England advanced theories of mixed government; the popularity of Ciceronian humanism and republicanism seems to decline further by the late 1620s). From a 'writerly' perspective, republicanism might seem to be the natural implication of Ciceronian humanism; from a 'readerly' persepctive, though, the republicanism could be read out of the equation, even if it was never exactly forgotten; or it could be read in ways that rendered it compatible with the politcal principles of English common law. As it stands, Peltonen's account renders humanist language more secondary and supplementary than it needs to be, a tendency revelaed particularly in his explanation for the decline in Ciceronian language by the later 1620s. He suggests that the issues in contention by that time were ones - property, taxation, imprisonment - that naturally led to the dominanace of juristic political languages (288). But does not that too readily assume that the chief function of republican language was to help in opposing the Stuart kings? (N.B. also 305 where Peltonen explicitly has to hold in check the 'natural' thrust of his argument.)
  8. At the root of this problem is the exaggerated role that Peltonen, following others, allows to absolutism in early modern English (especially Jacobean) political discourse. In an absolute monarchy there can only be one citizen, only one person capable of living anything like a civil and active life. In such a world, civic humanism would be subversive. That was not, however, the world of early modern English people. Most people conceived their polity as a balanced one that functioned to restrict the possibilities of mixed government. In such a world there was ample room for Ciceronian language to play a role, and we need - following the trail that Peltonen has cleared - to ask questions about the possible interaction of common-law and humanist language in the period.
  9. Two less significant points are also related to these matters. First, by concentrating on a single strand - humanist language - Peltonen prevents himself from doing full justice to what he identifies as a central task of his book (13), showing that civic humanism rather than purtianism underlay many accounts of citizenship in early modern England. Though the theme is touched upon throughout, it is most discussed in relation to Thomas Scott. Peltonen argues, contrary to the work of Peter Lake (Lake 1982), that many of Scott's key concepts are humanist rather than puritan (232-3. Through much of the book Walzer 1965 is the main target). The discussion is, however, not quite clinching. Peltonen does not, for example, ask if the two phenomena might be connected, whether puritans were predisposed to civic-humanist politics, or even how the two fitted together in Scott's mind. That last point is the crucial one, for Peltonen leaves us without a coherence principle for understanding how Scott's political thinking hung together. He does the same with Francis Bacon, admitting the presence in his writing of both Tacitist and Ciceronian themes, but not asking what, if anything, enabled them to cohere. The relevance of this to my general argument may lie in the suggestion that in both cases the clue to finding coherence is to be found in asking how they read and not how they wrote. That is to say, what enabled them to assimilate seemingly alien things to one another? What enabled them to read two discourses as if they were one? Perhaps it is in learning to ask such questions, more than in being directed to under-used categories of evidence, that historians have most to learn from literary critics.
  10. Finally, I wonder if Peltonen does not, on a few occasions, over-stress the immediate topicality of some of the writing he discusses. A good example might be his account of John Foord's Synopsis Politica (1582), a short Latin digest of Ciceronian politics. Peltonen reads that work in the light of Collinson's work on Burghley's imagining of an Elizabethan interregnum (Collinson 1997) (48-9); yet there is little in Foord's text to justify such a precise topical reading, though Peltonen does seize upon the (genuinely Ciceronian, in fact) term 'interrex'. Foord's Synopsis reads like little other than a useful summary of Roman republicanism, of general rather than particular relevance to English politics. The point is impossible of proof either way; but Peltonen's account does seem to suggest a very slight tendency to look too hard for the subversive. Throughout his study, Peltonen notes the way in which translators and authors regularly stressed the modifications needed to civic humanist language when it was applied to a monarchy like England. A more systematic analysis of these comments might be revealing, because what is never quite fully apparent is exactly what sorts of work civic humanist language might be expected by those who used it to do in English politics. It is too easy to read into that language our sense of what it 'really' stood for.
  11. By way of conclusion it is worth asking, then, what the place of theories of mixed government was in Elizabethan and early Stuart England? Peltonen is possibly too harsh on Michael Mendle's work (Mendle 1985), but nonetheless right to stress that Jacobean writers could safely express a theory of mixed government, and that hints of it are even to be found in Caroline writing. Again Peltonen is very careful; but even in the Caroline period, by which time there does appear to have been a greater polarisation of language than before, the application of the theory to England is a distinctly double-edged weapon. To say, as Rous did (304), that England's government is like that of Athens and Venice is to say one of two things: but which one? Either the political wisdom of Athens is, in fact, embodied in the existing English constitution, which provides good reasons for loyalty to that constitution; or England is a sort of democracy, in which the people have a political capacity that they ought now to put to good use. Arguably, one of the forces that helped to facilitate a polarisation of Caroline political debate was the fact that these two propositions were capable of being mistaken for one another - or disguised as one another. But that point, too, can be exaggerated. At much the same time as Rous, Henry Peacham also employed the idea of England as a mixed government (306-7). What Rous and Peacham were doing, I suspect, is each appealing in unusually humanist language to a broadly-accepted picture of English government as moderated, balanced, and stable. That picture was usually drawn in more juristic terms, so we are again back with the question raised earlier: what connections were there between Ciceronian humanist language and common law language? Before the late 1630s my reading of the evidence that Peltonen presents and of other material, would suggest a subtly different picture than Peltonen's own. It is a picture of a world where the main uses of civic humanist language (including the language of mixed government) were politically centripetal and not politically centrifugal. This is not some unlikely homogenised world in which everyone agreed and 'spoke the same language' (Kenyon 1986, 9); but it is a world in which political disagreement occurred within boundaries constituted by loyalty to the crown. Within this world humanism provided a powerful language of conformist reform. Neither overtly loyalist nor oppositional, it remained fundamentally counsel. There was no need for absolute monarchs in such a world, for the monarchical commonwealth was a place too stable to need such unpleasant medicine. To a remarkable extent, by about 1600 English people had been able temporarily to turn their backs on the worst aspects of the post-Reformation world of religious war, and in doing so made greater space for Ciceronian humanism and its priorities than one might have thought likely. The most remarkable thing about English political thought after the 1550s and before the later 1630s was its capacity to hold together divine-right monarchy and 'commonwealth'. That commonwealth was inhabited by men who saw the common law as their chief protector. It now seems that these gentlemen were also capable at times of imagining themselves as living the life of citizens.
  12. I might disgree with some of the nuances in Peltonen's work; but my understanding of political discourse before the English Civil War will, thanks to him, never be quite the same again. Judged in the perspective with which this review opened, Peltonen is completely successful in demonstrating the continuity of humanist political discussion in Tudor and Stuart England. He also suggests (195-6, 311-12) that from Bacon onwards one can trace an 'indigenous vein of classical republicanism ... which culminated in the writings of James Harrington' (196). Let us hope that Peltonen goes on to explore that subject further.
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