Renaissance Texts and Renaissance Republicanism:
An Editorial and Review Article
UNIVERSITY OF HULL
I An Editorial ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Very recently, Kevin Sharpe, in a magisterial survey of recent work on
the history of Renaissance culture, looked back over recent developments:
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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Contents © Copyright
1996 Glenn Burgess.
Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 1, Number 1, March 1996.
Technical Editor: Andrew
Butler. Updated 11 September 1997.
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