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Response to Review of Politics and ‘Politiques’ in Sixteenth-Century France

I would like to thank Tom Hamilton for his complimentary review of mine and Emma Claussen’s books. It was serendipitous that we all found ourselves at Oxford in the years when we were working on this research, and it is all the more of a pleasure, therefore, to find our names in print together here. I am reminded that Donald Kelley once referred drolly to Julian Franklin, Ralph Giesey and John Salmon as the three musketeers, and that we are working, therefore, in an illustrious tradition of academic triumvirates.[1]

Hamilton’s review is unfailingly kind, and polite. It is so polite, indeed, that any critiques that do exist lie beneath the surface, and so they require some excavating. I thought I might engage in a little of that excavation work here, because I think there are some interesting questions raised in his account, relating to the subject of intellectual history, that may form the basis of fruitful further discussion. 

Hamilton observes that the ‘Ideas in Context’ series has not, until now, featured books on the French Wars of Religion, though he rightly cites Quentin Skinner, Ralph Giesey, Salmon, and Franklin as having published formative studies with Cambridge since the 1960s. I should add Garnett’s translation of the Vindiciae, contra Tyrannos to this list (of all the fates the Vindiciae has met since it first appeared in 1579, being overlooked is surely not one it deserves).[2] French Calvinist resistance theory has not found itself wanting for expert commentary and analysis over the years. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) is still seen as a watershed moment in the history of political thought when—to quote Skinner, ‘the concept of a religious duty to resist became transformed amongst Protestants into the modern and strictly political concept of a moral right of resistance.’[3]  This is one reason why another triumvirate, that of François Hotman, Théodore de Bèze and Philippe Duplessis Mornay, continue to hold such an important place in the canon.[4]

Neither Claussen nor I are committed to setting modernity as the standard by which to analyse sixteenth-century texts. Nor did we restrict ourselves to a canon of Calvinist political thought, and we both, I believe, were interested in exploring the limits, as well as the scope of, what constituted ‘the political’ in this period. The selection of texts was, therefore, very important to us both in our work, as Hamilton notes. I also think genre of text is worth mentioning, for its significance to both of us in determining what constituted a polemical work in this era. Claussen explores that open frontier between literature and polemic expertly to refresh and deepen our understanding of what it meant to be ‘politique’ in this era. From the point of view of my own research, an important goal was to move beyond the Calvinist texts, and to explore the political thought of the League through the full spectrum of its published literature as it operated at various different intellectual and academic levels, from the popular to the elite. 

Our approaches to the sources raise issues about how to go about reading ideas in context. Hamilton suggests, at the end of his review, that institutional contexts and physical civic and ecclesiastical spaces ought to be recognised as important contexts, which is, implicitly where the material will also meet the intellectual. It has long been a critique of Skinnerian methodology that the notion of a ‘context’ is limitless, and so the debate about which contexts to privilege is similarly enduring. For my research, and for Claussen’s, the relationship between text, language, translation, authorship, circulation, and reception forms the complex interpretative matrix which prioritises the recovering of meaning as its goal. The challenges posed to reading ideas ‘in context’ in our research, it seems to me, come from the instability of the text-author relationship, when much of the body of source material is either anonymous, plagiarised, or appropriated and put to ends unintended by the author, as well as often reoriented for a new readership. This was notoriously the case with the work of Étienne de la Boétie’s De la servitude volontaire, or the Dialogue d’entre le maheustre et le manent, for example, but is a consistent feature of the literature of the period. In grappling with these questions, my goal was to produce an intellectual history of the League in these lively, slippery, textual, and intertextual contexts, which so often transcended the physical or institutional context that determined their first expression. 

Repositioning the League intellectually so it could be examined independently from the framework of Calvinist resistance theory was a significant first step in undertaking this research, however that was only ever the first step. Hamilton understandably characterises my work as ‘revisionist’; correcting common misconceptions about the ‘radical’ nature of the League is certainly a central strand of my analysis. I am also by no means the first scholar of the movement to identify that its members were not quite what they seemed, or as they were so often portrayed. I have long admired the work of Maurice Wilkinson, a now almost entirely forgotten historian of the League at St John’s College, Oxford, in the 1920s. Wilkinson was astute in his observation that the writings of the League could all too easily be dismissed as a ‘bonfire of rubbish’, but that they ought not to be.[5]  

One thing I would amend in Hamilton’s account of my book, is that he anchors it in the work of the Annaliste historian of the noblesse, Robert Descimon. Descimon’s social analysis of the League in the 1980s was pathbreaking, but it comes from a rather different tradition to the one in which I would position my work. My major influences, in taking the approach to the League that I did, lay in the work of historians writing before 1945: J.N. Figgis, Augustin Renaudet, Pierre Mesnard. Mesnard’s Essor de la Philosophie Politique (1937) in particular is easily overlooked for the classic that it is, especially in making the argument that the forces of Reformation and Counter Reformation underpinned political thinking in the sixteenth century, rather than instincts to move towards the secular. He placed religious crisis at the heart of the social transformations he considered in that book, in a way that had a profound influence on my own treatment of the League. Mesnard was taught by Henri Hauser, and indebted to the same French sociologists of the nineteenth century whom Descimon admires.[6]  This, in fact, may be the better connection to explore here, and doing so could open up an interesting set of questions about the relationship of the Annales school to that of intellectual history. 

Hamilton describes Claussen and I as scions of the ‘founding fathers of the discipline’ in his review, meaning the ‘so-called Cambridge school’. He generously credits us with writing ‘more expansive’ intellectual histories than those which currently exist. Yet, as he points out in the opening paragraph of his review, ‘no volumes in the series have focused on the political thought of the French Wars of Religion.’ I wonder what it is, then, that we are expanding. I expect this refers simply to the range of texts we both cover. And if so, then I would suggest that there is a bit more going on here of interest, especially as relates to method. Claussen’s book, as Hamilton does note elsewhere, is a valuable contribution to the ‘Ideas in Context’ series precisely because it is not grounded what he terms the ‘conventional methodologies’ of the Cambridge school, but takes a literary approach to the texts she analyses. Her ‘keyword’ method owes a debt to the formative work of Richard Scholar, as she acknowledges, along with the influence of Neil Kenny and Wes Williams. That Claussen chose to publish her work in this series is very striking, especially when it is obvious that the ‘conventional methodologies’ of the Cambridge school are not, in fact, her inspiration. 

What are these ‘conventional methodologies’ alluded to by Hamilton? (I am reminded at this point of classes with István Hont in Cambridge when we were posed exactly this kind of question, and reminded not to attach too much importance to a small market-town in the east of England as a way of framing our own method). It is entirely fair of Hamilton to position my work more directly in relation to Cambridge than Claussen’s, but it would be remiss not to observe that there have been generations in between the ‘founding fathers’ to whom he alludes and myself, who have critiqued and challenged the methods used in the 1960s. The work of my former supervisor, Annabel Brett, for example, demonstrates the ways in which the scions of Skinner have continued to work at the frontiers of the discipline of intellectual history, and to push at its boundaries.  

I also question Hamilton’s definition of ‘conventional’ Cambridge methodologies to lie in ‘exploring how significant authors engaged in debates over foundational questions of political theory.’ This is a misconception. It was R.G. Collingwood, Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics, after all, who made the influential case for a ‘question and answer’ approach to the history of philosophy in Oxford in the 1930s and ‘40s. And Collingwood thoroughly rejected the idea that there are ‘foundational questions’ that should be asked repeatedly of different texts at different times in the history of ideas.[7]  Quentin Skinner influentially reformulated Collingwood’s analysis in 1969, when he argued that assuming that there are ‘perennial questions’ in the history of political thought is to work from a fundamental error in interpretation.[8]  

I think the question of method matters, in my own case, because the interest of my book lies, I hope, not so much in the claim that the Leaguers weren’t simply Calvinist monarchomachs in Catholic guise, but in the attempt to demonstrate that the kinds of questions these writers were posing got to the very heart of the relationship between the temporal and the spiritual spheres. Thinking in this way, which owes a significant debt to Collingwood, involves rewriting the questions we pose to the texts of the period, especially when they start from preconceived notions of the kinds of questions sixteenth-century political thinkers are supposed to address. 

League political thought is messy, and complicated, and full of inconvenient truths; it simply will not fit into established categories of political analysis of this period. Jean Bodin’s involvement with the League, for example, is a difficult fact for modern commentators to acknowledge and absorb into their analysis, especially if they seek to reduce his enormous and chaotic Six Livres de la République (1576) to a soundbite definition of sovereign power. Finding the right questions, in order to challenge received wisdom, was, therefore an important endeavour in this book. 

Instead of starting from a theory of the state, or its foundations, for example, I focus on the communities of the respublica, politeia and patria, in the earthly and heavenly sense; instead of asking how ‘absolutist’ or ‘constitutionalist’ a particular work is, I strove to grapple with questions about the relationship of the provincial church to the Roman, and to the universal church as they impacted ideas about the political community. Nor did I assume that all the writers I looked at were humanists but recognised instead that humanist techniques sit parallel to a revived and vigorous scholastic theology in this period. The work of the Leaguer theologians is incomprehensible if this fact is not just accepted but explored and developed. Finally, I aimed to show that the League are not the antithesis of politique reason of state, and that this is the wrong framework in which to understand their ideas. 

All of which is to agree with Hamilton in the implication that I am certainly ‘old school’, but that this inclination manifests itself in my attachment to historians writing before the second world war, rather than in a commitment to a set of methods established in Cambridge in the 1960s. Collingwood was right, I think, to argue that in posing different sets of questions to the texts we analyse, our conclusions inevitably differ from those put forward in existing scholarship, and that the questions themselves matter, because they shape our interpretation. In the words of Collingwood, ‘the history of political theory is not the history of different answers given to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it.’[9]

[1]Donald R. Kelley, Frontiers of History : Historical Inquiry in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 210.
[2]Hubert Languet and George Garnett, Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, or, Concerning the Legitimate Power of a Prince over the People, and of the People over a Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
[3]Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), vol. 2, 240.
[4]Ralph E. Giesey, ‘The Monarchomach Triumvirs: Hotman, Beza and Mornay’, Bibliothèque d’humanisme et Renaissance 32, no. 1 (1970): 41-56.
[5]Maurice Wilkinson, A History of the League : Or Sainte Union, 1576-1595 (Glasgow: Jackson, Wylie, 1929).
[6]Robert Descimon, ‘Intellectual Trajectories and Relations of a French Historian’ in Barbara B. Diefendorf and Robert Descimon, Social Relations, Politics, and Power in Early Modern France : Robert Descimon and the Historian’s Craft, Early Modern Studies Series (Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, 2016), 260-282.
[7]R. G. Collingwood, ‘Autobiography’ in R. G Collingwood, David Boucher, and Teresa Smith, R.G. Collingwood : An Autobiography and Other Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[8]Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory : Studies in the Philosophy of History 8, no. 1 (1969): 3–53. 
[9]Collingwood, Autobiography, 62.