The History Woman's Blog

What Germans made of the English Revolution

The Works of John Milton in an C18th edition held at Leipzig University. Library.

I know, it does not seem the best time to start a new research project in the midst of a pandemic. To begin with, many libraries and archives are still shut or operating a limited service, and I might not be able to make full use of my new office for quite some time. 

Moving from Berlin to Newcastle was enough of a challenge in itself, given I had to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, while also trying to sort out all the things one has to do when arriving in a new, if familiar, place. Still, I am determined to make the most of my fellowship after playing around with the idea for the project for quite a while now. After all, there should be enough quiet time for reading.

My new project explores the way in which ideas from the English Revolution (1640-1660) where received in Germany, or rather the German-speaking lands, through the means of translation and what potential impact they might have had on the constitutional debates before the revolution of 1848-49.

Challenging a largely Anglocentric and transatlantic historiography, I hope to establish the intellectual reach and legacy of English republican ideas in Europe by focusing on the country that from 1701 developed an ever-closer relationship with England through the Succession Act which established the Hanoverian dynasty and its heir as the next in line to the English throne. This will involve looking at the distribution history of English republican works in Germany, either in their original English version, or in a variety of translations that might include Latin, French or Dutch texts besides translations into German.

Proceeding from my work on the English republican exiles on the Continent, this is another transnational as well as (from its source base) multilingual study which addresses the communication and cultural exchange between societies across Europe and the way in which political ideas are understood in different contexts.

It is also timely as the UK is renegotiating its relationship with the EU following the 2016 referendum and the degree to which the UK is part of a shared European culture and value system has once again come under close scrutiny both from backers and opponents of Brexit. Then as now, the debates in Europe were about what we share and what divides us.

An C18th German translation of Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government.

In practical terms, I will be looking at the legacy of key authors emerging from the English Revolution, such as John Milton, Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, whose ideas were key for the development of modern representative democracy. Tainted as they were by the regicide, however, the ideas of popular sovereignty, religious liberty and the rule of law promoted by radicals during the first English revolution did not spread widely beyond the British Isles until after the second. 

Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 which was – however misleadingly – presented as peaceful and bloodless did a concept of ‘English liberty’ emerge that was considered worthy of praise and emulation among the thinkers of early Enlightenment Europe.

In their view, the English had managed to combine the three classical forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy – in a unique way to balance the interests of the one, the few and the many in a parliamentary monarchy that was held up as a model to the rulers of Europe. By that time, radical republican ideas had been moderated and tamed. They were no longer considered as being in opposition to monarchy, but seen as supporting the rule of a sovereign bound by Parliament and subject to England’s unwritten constitution. 

In contrast, early modern Germany found both democratic government and its own national identity relatively late. It was divided into many smaller states and independent cities, and the territories ruled by the Holy Roman emperors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were held together only by a loose bond. 

The dissolution of the Empire in 1806, meanwhile, led to the search for a new German identity, first in opposition to the Napoleonic forces and later during the pre-revolutionary period of the Vormärz (c1830-1848/9) against the conservative powers of the Restoration. Besides, many territories still struggled against outdated feudal structures. In this process of state formation and active state building, English republican ideas could offer a model for a parliamentary monarchy and clear constitutional order within the framework of a nation state. 

This does not mean that Germans aimed to emulate their English neighbours, but their identity was shaped through comparison and contrast with other European powers, notably France and England. My new project hopes to capture part of this debate and to contextualise it to gain a better understanding of contemporary constitutional discourse and the formation of national identities in Europe.

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A small workshop shows why I like the EU and Brexit is a bad idea

Posted in Academia, Comment, Conferences, Early Modern, higher education, History, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2019

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Our Translating Cultures group in the HAB’s Bibelsaal.

I have just returned from our annual workshop on Translating Cultures at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel (HAB, Germany) which is always a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues while discussing the significance of translation for the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe. The spread of papers was amazing – from translations of the Old Testament Book of Job via the reception of William Robertson in Italy to Montesquieu in Hungarian and new conventions of botany books that created a whole new language for the description of plants. (You can catch up with the live tweets under #tcHAB2019.)

The mix of languages present at the conference was reflected in our conversations as well. While most papers were presented in English, one was presented in French, and French was also often used in discussions around the table or during break times outside of the conference room, where Italian and German could also be heard. Among the participants were an Israeli, a Hungarian, a Russian and a French national who live and work in Germany, while the event was co-organised by a Danish national living in Scotland and a German who had spent almost one third of her life in the UK and Ireland. (more…)