I have just returned from a conference in Paris and must say I am deeply impressed by the way the organisers and participants managed to cross linguistic boundaries. Virtually all of the French colleagues had very good English, while most of the foreign participants had only little or no French at all. Yet, we all managed to have some engaging and meaningful discussions, thanks to the many creative ways in which everyone tried to make it work.
Participants would, for instance, present their paper in English and have a Power Point presentation in French, so everyone could follow the talk without having to wait for someone to translate. Some speakers even had slides in both languages, and there was a lot of spontaneous interpreting backwards and forwards, be it to summarise what had just been said, or just to clarify individual terms. The conference was on ‘Profane Imprints on the Sacred: What Religion Owes to Politics’, so there were a lot of religious terms that needed clarifying. Thanks to a paper on the English Reformation we learnt that the English word ‘collect’ in the context corresponds to the French ‘oraison’, while the modern French ‘collecte’ is only used for specific prayers in the Catholic mass.
The session chairs also helpfully summarised each paper after the speaker had finished – sometimes in French, sometimes in English – and offered a helpful interpretive commentary on what had just been said. It was my first French conference, but I assume this is their usual way of doing things, and I found it very helpful, not least to get the discussion going. And there was a lot of it.
“You need the papers as an impulse, but it’s really the discussions that matter at those conferences,” said Nathalie Caron, one of the organisers at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. She is right. The participants were historians, theologians, literary scholars, sociologists, even lawyers, and the papers ranged from the Middle Ages to the present day. So we were not specialists in each other’s subjects. Yet, we could all reflect on the different ways in which politics intrudes on religion, and in which religion is exploited for political purposes.
Call it a national stereotype, but the French are good at the big ideas. The keynote speaker, Jean-Paul Willaime, took us from Durkheim via Weber to Ricoeur and back to explain the role of religion in the shaping of national, individual and narrative identities, and the debates that followed crossed not just linguistic but also subject and period boundaries.
And there we are in the UK, historians talking to our immediate colleagues in the field, working not just on the same period, but on either politics, religion or ideas in that little period, unable to engage even with a social or gender historian in a related field. This is not meant to be a rant about monolingualism or even about the fragmentation of academic history into ever shorter periods of time and ever more specialised fields of study, it is a call for more openness and experimentation. We need to talk more to our European neighbours.
‘Du profane dans le sacré: quand le religieux se politise,’ organised by Nathalie Caron and Guillaume Marche at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, 16th and 17th June 2011.
The government’s decision to allow universities to charge UG tuition fees of up to £9,000 per academic year clearly was an own goal. A BBC survey shows that about half of all higher education institutions in the UK are planning to charge the full fees, and even those who don’t on average demand more than the £7,500 the government had bargained for. In fact, the average fee is likely to be closer to £8,500, leaving the government to foot the bill until the new graduates are earning more than £21,000 per year. If the job market doesn’t pick up quickly, there won’t be many graduates to do so in the near future. (more…)
Power is founded on property. Few people nowadays would deny this doctrine. The political philosopher James Harrington formulated it in the mid-seventeenth century. Living in per-industrial England he still considered land, not money, the most important form of property. The social group that held most of the country’s land also held the largest amount of power. In early modern England this was the monarch and his nobility, including the bishops.
However, from the reign of Henry VII onwards, and especially through the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and sale of Church lands, power relations began to change. Over time, the King (or Queen) and nobility lost land and power in favour of the next social group, the gentry and the commoners, represented in the lower house of Parliament. By the early Stuart period the power balance had been upset so badly that struggles between the King and the House of Commons led to a breakdown or ‘dissolution’ of the government in the English Civil War. Anyone trying to reconstruct the English government in the aftermath of the war would therefore have to create a new superstructure that took into account the changed power relations.
The most famous elaboration of Harrington’s theory can be found in his utopian Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, in which he tried to persuade Oliver Cromwell to play the sole legislator, set up the perfect republican state and retire to the country.
‘Good laws’, Harrington believed, could give the country stability, and these laws had to be infallible, so that bad men would not be able to corrupt the state. Harrington never saw his dream come true. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 meant a return of many of the old problems. But his ideas of mixed government and a balance of power remained influential in the writings of the Neo-Harringtonians of the later 17th and early 18th century. They influenced both the American and French Revolutions, while his materialist theory of political change would also strike a chord with Marxists and modern economic and political thinkers.
James Harrington would have celebrated his 400th birthday today. He was born in Upton, Northamptonshire on 3 January 1611 and died in Little Ambry on 11 September 1677.
In his book on The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson sets out to refute the commonly held assumption in early modern historiography that political science came to be separated from religion over the course of the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the concept of the respublica Hebraeica was seen as authoritative by many political thinkers, and that in particular three elements of God’s commonwealth were influential: the republican form of government, the redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws, and religious toleration. In their pursuit of the ideal government, seventeenth-century authors did not just rely on the authority of the Bible, but also on the works of the rabbinic tradition. In the three chapters that constitute the main body of his book, Nelson then goes on to prove each of his points in turn.
First, he argues that republican authors came to consider popular government as the only legitimate form of government instead of seeing it as one possible form only. Secondly, Nelson shows that republican authors, most famously James Harrington, came to put more emphasis on the necessity for a redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws influenced by rabbinic scholarship. And finally, he shows that the pursuit of toleration, usually attributed to a process of secularization which involves a separation of state and church, was perfectly compatible with an Erastian church, i.e. a church under government control. For in God’s commonwealth, Nelson argues, there was no separation between the religious and civil spheres, and God gave his laws to the secular ruler.
If you want to buy Nelson’s argument or not, you have to admit it is well put. His work is clearly structured, the prose flows well, and the book is so highly readable that you don’t want to put it down. A must for everybody interested in early modern religion and political thought.
The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A are quite impressive works of art in their own right. Roughly four metres wide and three metres high they show scenes from the lives of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, such as The Miraculous Draught of Fishes or The Sacrifice at Lystra. They are powerful reminders of the impact these men had on early Christians and of their role in the creation of the Church. They were fishers of men and brought hope to the poor and to the sick. Looking at what has become of their Church now, The Healing of the Lame Man and the other scenes depicted seem to have happened in a different world altogether. But the images are still alive.
With their bright colours barely faded it is hard to believe the cartoons are nearly 500 years old. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael and his assistants, they are full-scale designs for tapestries at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Four of these tapestries can now be seen right next to their desgins at the V&A. They are on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. Whether or not they will help to boost the popularity of the institution to which they belong remains to be seen.
However, what is so impressive about this show at the V&A is that the cartoons and corresponding tapestries probably have not been seen in the same room together since the latter were woven in Brussels. In fact, there are two sets of tapestries. For the then Prince of Wales, and later King Charles I, brought the cartoons to England in 1623 to have his own tapestries made at Mortlake. Charles was a great art collector, but his love for all things popish did not endear him to his protestant subjects.
Anyway, the most interesting thing about the artworks themselves is the opportunity to compare them to each other. There are slight variations between the cartoons and the original tapestries (aside from the fact that they are mirrored) and between the original tapestries and the English set (of course the weavers of Mortlake had not seen the tapestries in the Vatican). For instance, on the cartoon the healed man from the Sacrifice drops his crutch, while the Vatican tapestry shows a discarded wooden leg; and the colours used in the Vatican tapestries are much brighter than their gloomier counterparts of the English version.
It is a shame I did not have more time to study the tapestries next to their cartoons. The V&A make you book your tickets in advance for an allocated time, and I booked mine for 5pm on Thursday evening only to be told as I went in that the museum was about to close in 30 minutes. They did not think that one through. Maybe I will go back for another look.
In her book on ‘tolerance and intolerance’ in early modern England Alex Walsham takes a swipe at the Whiggish notion of the ‘rise of toleration’ (7) and the domination of the field by the history of ideas. Emphasisng the point that it was the moral duty of every good Christian at the time to correct any deviance from true religion in their neighbours, Walsham considers persecution itself as some kind of ‘charitable hatred’. Toleration, however, meant no more than ‘to permit or license something of which one emphatically disapproved’ (4). The relationship between ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ was therefore much more complex than the dominant Whig interpretation suggests.
Walsham also emphasises the often contradictory behaviour of the population towards deviant groups, in particular Catholics. Since post-Reformation Catholicism had a political dimension Catholics were usually considered ‘traitors rather than hereticks’ (22) , and anti-popish prejudice could ‘inflate Catholicism to menacing proportions’ (27). Nevertheless, many people who hated ‘papists’ in the abstract could still get on perfectly well with their Catholic neighbours. The uniformity in religion seen as so crucial for national unity meanwhile seemed like a utopian goal, even though this was not publicly acknowledged before the passing of the 1689 Toleration Act.
Unsurprisingly, many at the receiving end of persecution were ‘foreigners and strangers,’ and there was a clear ‘xenophobic dimension of contemporary intolerance’ (141). The experience of persecution, meanwhile, led to both ‘active forms of resistance’ (177) and ‘concessions to repressive regimes through conformity and dissimulation’ (188) – a response that is often neglected by the historiography.
Overall, however, there was a considerable amount of negotiation between people of different faiths and confessions and a great willingness of neighbours to get on with each other. Like the rest of Europe, England underwent a process of ‘confessionalisation’ as the people slowly began to understand that ‘religious pluralism’ (301) was there to stay.
Walsham’s book is an excellent work of synthesis, covering much of the available literature on the topic as well as bringing together the social history of religion with the history of ideas and political history. Not all of its facts or insights might be new, but the way in which they are presented and brought together certainly is. A great introduction for all newcomers to the subject, and an eye-opener for many specialists in the field.
I have been to quite a few academic conferences this month and was shocked to see the conditions under which some of us work. On the surface it all looks perfect. Dr So-and-so from such and such a university giving a paper on his recent research on x, y and z. Their affiliation is perfectly inconspicuous. And then during the break over coffee or lunch, or in the evening at the bar, the truth comes out. Her second one-year contract has run out, and she can’t find a new job. So she is clinging on to her old institution as long as she can while thinking about going abroad. A colleague from southern Europe, despite holding various positions and titles at his institution, is not paid for his teaching at all. He can only hold on to his ‘job’ because his wife brings home the money. Only by the end of the second day of the conference do I find out that he has a ‘real’ job as well that pays at least some of the bills. But he won’t tell me what it is. Academia seems to be the last bastion where ‘money’ is a dirty word. You’re expected to live alone on the love for your subject, and if you can’t , you are somehow inferior to the others. Because it means you are somehow not quite good enough to have made it. (more…)
Patrick Collinson first set out his idea of ‘The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I’ in a journal article in 1987. In this article he emphasised in particular two ways in which Elizabethan subjects conceived themselves as ‘citizens’ and displayed considerable self-governing capacities. First, there were Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors at the centre, who were hatching plans for a possible Interregnum in the case of the Queen’s sudden death. And secondly, there were the ‘chief inhabitants’ of localities such as Swallowfield, who made arrangements to govern themselves at their parish meeting because their governors were so ‘far off’. The first group was motivated by humanist ideals of the vita activa and counsel to the prince, the second group by a native English sense of independence as well as a Puritan concern for the community.
Some twenty years after Collinson’s seminal article, John F. McDiarmid has gathered a number of responses to his thesis of the ‘monarchical republic’ in a small volume of extremely useful and refreshingly short essays. None of them exceeds 20 pages, and most of them are immensely clear and readable. As with the majority of volumes produced ‘in honour’ or ‘in response’ to an eminent historian, the essays treat Collinson’s ideas with great respect, and most of them show further examples or new aspects of the ‘monarchical republic’ in action.
Dale Hoak, for instance, argues that the monarchical republic of Queen Elizabeth actually had its origins in the earlier reign of Edward VI, when courtiers like Sir William Cecil and Sir Thomas Smith realised that the monarchy depended on the support of Parliament and the people. In particular, parliamentary backing was necessary for ‘a royal Reformation’ (54). The volume editor John F. McDiarmid similarly stresses the link between the leading thinkers and statesmen of the Edwardian and Elizabethan ages. He claims that these ‘Edwardo-Elizabethans’ (55), in particular Thomas Smith and his Cambridge circles, were ‘significantly informed by classical republican thought, especially Cicero’ (56), and that there was a clear ‘link between language and the polity in the Ciceronian tradition’ (59). Both, he argues, arose from the people and depended on their consent, and both language and the res publica were ‘the work of a community’ (59). However, as different communities spoke different languages, so different communities had different political structures. And these structures, like languages, were open to change and shaped by the community itself (60). (more…)