The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)

The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)

by Francis Oakley


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The concluding volume of Francis Oakley's authoritative trilogy moves on to engage the political thinkers of the later Middle Ages, Renaissance, Age of Reformation and religious wars, and the era that produced the Divine Right Theory of Kingship. Oakley's ground-breaking study probes the continuities and discontinuities between medieval and early modern modes of political thinking and dwells at length on the roots and nature of those contract theories that sought to legitimate political authority by grounding it in the consent of the governed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300194432
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Series: The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 4.50(d)

About the Author

Francis Oakley is the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas, Emeritus, at Williams College. He is also President Emeritus of the College and of the American Council of Learned Societies.

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The Watershed of Modern Politics

Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300â?"1650)



Copyright © 2015 Francis Oakley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21379-9


Historical Orientation

From War, Plague, and Schism to Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolt

* * *

OF THE THREE AND A HALF centuries from 1300 to 1650 it may confidently be said that few stretches of history more justifiably warrant the Dickensian characterization of having been "the best of times and the worst of times, ... the season of light, the season of darkness, the spring of hope, the winter of despair." So far as the season of darkness, worst of times, and winter of despair dimensions go, we should note that when the period began the steady population growth, which had gathered momentum in the eleventh century and continued well into the thirteenth, had already begun to peter out under conditions suggestive of the possibility that Europe was already starting to press "against the technological upper limit of its food supplies." Even before the advent of the Black Death (1348–50) the serious and widespread famines of old had once more begun to make their unwelcome presence felt, and the European economy had begun to slide into financial crisis and into a depression that was destined to endure into the latter part of the fifteenth century and even, in some sectors at least, on into the sixteenth. The fourteenth century had begun for northern Europe with a climatic pulse that was to eventuate over the long haul in a protracted cooling phase which did not reverse itself until the latter years of the seventeenth century. In the short term, moreover, it produced a protracted stretch of exceptionally severe winters (1310–30) punctuated by devastatingly elevated rainfall. The immediate outcome of this, during the dreadful years from 1315 to 1322, was "a calamity unheard of among living men," a "great hunger" akin to the Irish An Gorta Mór (i.e., "The Great Hunger") of 1845–52 but stretching this time from Scandinavia in the north to central France in the south, and from the western reaches of Poland all the way to the Atlantic coast of Ireland. A catastrophe so severe that the lingering effects of youthful malnutrition among the survivors probably left them more than usually susceptible to the ravages of the Black Death. That arrived only a few decades later and, with its recurrent aftershocks, had a devastating demographic impact. It was the first great outbreak of plague in Europe since the eighth century CE, one so massive in its dimensions that in three short years it was to sweep away what is usually estimated as a full third of the European population. It dislocated the lives of those fortunate enough to have survived, created a great shortage of labor, spawned a good deal of social unrest and religious fanaticism, and served understandably to sponsor the profound pessimism that is one of the distinguishing features of the later Middle Ages.

Only in the course of the sixteenth century, it seems, was the demographic and economic tide finally to turn, ushering in a new era of vigorous population growth and renewed economic vitality. Much of this activity was centered now to the north of the Alps where population growth was at its most vigorous and economic recovery most readily evident and where, to the great benefit of port cities on the Atlantic littoral, improved navigational and shipbuilding techniques were transforming the bleak waters of the North Atlantic from an intimidating obstacle course into a beckoning shipping lane. In effect, if one may be permitted a perhaps too aggressive simplification, the center of economic and (eventually) political gravity was beginning to shift in a northerly direction and the great hub of commercial activity to remove itself from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Multiple factors, of course, played a role in this great turnaround, but a particular emphasis should certainly be placed on the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century voyages of exploration which met with great success and led to the discovery of the Americas and the opening up of direct access to the Far East.

Not all the outcomes of this historic achievement were positive, certainly not for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, and not even for Europeans. So far as the indigenous peoples were concerned, to the miseries attendant upon the brutalities of military conquest, the destruction of traditional cultural forms, and the imposition of economic servitude were added the inroads of terrifying diseases hitherto unknown to them. Along with yellow fever and malaria, both of which appear to have made their way from Africa on European ships, the ancient diseases to which Europeans had developed at least some resistance — measles, typhoid, smallpox — proved utterly catastrophic to peoples who had never encountered them before. As for the Europeans themselves, the enormous influx of precious metals into Spain and, thence, into the rest of Europe meant, among other things, that they had to cope for a century and a half with the protracted spasm of runaway inflation that we know as the Price Revolution. Merchants and owners of urban properties enjoying increasing rental income may have gained, but those on fixed incomes lost. Not least among the latter were the kings of Europe, who, in the desperate effort to cope with increasing governmental expenses, were forced (among other unhappy expedients) to sell public offices, debase the coinage, encroach upon urban rights, and come into constitutional conflict with the representative bodies from whom they were forced to demand assent to increasingly high taxation. On the other hand, the introduction of new food crops hitherto confined to the Americas eventually served to improve food supplies in Europe and to help make possible the more than doubling in population that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Similarly, the opening up of the Americas to settlement and economic exploitation and of the Far East to direct commercial penetration and the establishment of lucrative national monopolies served to quicken the growth in Europe of a form of "commercial capitalism" and the transition to mercantilist economic systems national in their scope.

To the turbulence and trauma generated by the roller-coaster demographic and economic conditions that characterized those centuries were added the Europe-wide religious confusion, political dislocation, and psychological malaise that accompanied the Great Schism of the West (1378–1417) as also, later on in the sixteenth century, the religio-political upheavals sponsored in Germany, central and northern Europe, France, and Britain by the Protestant Reformation. Even more destabilizing, however, was the recrudescence during these centuries of widespread and protracted warfare. The outbreak in 1296 of war between France and England marked the end of a comparatively peaceful period and the beginning of the prolonged struggle between those two major European powers which, punctuated by intermittent truces and moments of peace, was destined to drag on into the fifteenth century and to come to be known as the Hundred Years' War. No sooner was it over than dynastic conflict broke out between the Yorkist and Lancastrian claimants to the English throne, "Wars of the Roses" that lasted for thirty years. On the Continent, moreover, intermittent warfare continued on for the greater part of the sixteenth century. In the east, the Ottoman Turks, who had destroyed the East Roman or Byzantine empire in 1453, renewed their drive into central Europe and, at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Hungarians. Farther to the west, in the wake of the Reformation and for about a hundred years after the mid-sixteenth century, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, England, Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark were all of them drawn into a tangled complex of conflicts in which, while many issues — dynastic, constitutional, social, economic — were at stake, religious factors played the dominant and embittering ideological role. In France the Religious Wars lasting from 1562 to 1598, and in Germany the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), both of them enormously destructive, occupied center stage. But they were also surrounded by a penumbral pattern of repeated peasant uprisings, for some of which a great price was exacted. The 1640s and 1650s, moreover, were marked by Europe-wide riot, disorder, and outright rebellion. Reaching well beyond England, Ireland, and France to embrace Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Naples, Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia, that great efflorescence of disorder has moved historians to attach to these years of upheaval the comprehensive label of the "general crisis of the seventeenth century."

For the three and a half centuries, then, stretching from 1300 to 1650, the designation of worst of times, season of darkness, winter of discontent seems all too well deserved. And yet, on the season of light, spring of hope, best of times side of the equation we have to weigh the extraordinary creativity — political, philosophical, literary, religious, artistic — that characterized these deeply troubled but remarkably energetic centuries.

So far as politics went, European historians have long been preoccupied with the consolidation of the nation-states of Western Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and with the concomitant rise in the "new monarchies" of more effectively bureaucratized and successful rationalized forms of royal government. In philosophy and science, one need only evoke the stunning succession of towering figures that stretched from Duns Scotus (d. 1308), William of Ockham (d. 1347), and Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) down to Copernicus (d. 1543), Galileo (d. 1642), and Descartes (d. 1650), as well as the remarkable sequence of second-order figures of great note stretching from Nicolas of Autrecourt, John Buridan, Pierre d'Ailly, and Jean Gerson in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to Francis Bacon, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi in the seventeenth. Or, in the vernacular literatures, the equally towering succession of illuminati whose works have peopled and shaped the European imaginary — from Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer in the fourteenth century to Shakespeare, Donne, Cervantes, Corneille, and Molière in the sixteenth and seventeenth. In matters religious, too, the late medieval centuries witnessed the great flowering of mysticism in the Rhineland, the Netherlands, and England that has left us in possession of such classics of spirituality as The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ, while the sixteenth century saw the dissemination of the two profoundly distinctive spiritualities hammered out in anguish on the anvil of the soul by Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola. Again, in the arts — painting, sculpture, architecture, music — not even the most casual of cultural tourists or the most insensitive of museum visitors can fail to be aware of the truly historic achievements of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century era of Renaissance in Italy and of the sixteenth century north of the Alps. But it may not be altogether redundant to emphasize the vitality also of the maturing musical tradition that was able to produce such great composers as Guillaume Dufay in the fifteenth century; Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, and William Byrd in the sixteenth; and Orlando Gibbons in the seventeenth.

Among these disparate developments one can detect much cross-fertilization and many a moment of unexpected juxtaposition. If Dante was a sublime poet, he was also a political thinker of note. If William of Ockham was a logician, philosopher, and theologian of marked originality, he also wrote voluminously, influentially, and with a challenging degree of intricacy, on matters political, too. If conciliarism had its flowering in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, it continued later on to generate sympathy in some unexpected quarters — from Savonarola, the great Florentine reformer, or from Michelangelo himself, to Thomas More, humanist and statesman, whose papalist loyalties ironically cost him his life, to George Buchanan, the Scottish humanist who, having embraced Calvinism, became tutor to the future James I of England. And so on.

Best, then, as well as worst, light no less than darkness, hope modulated, it may be, by despair, as we turn now to the highly variegated body of political thinking produced in these three and a half centuries and out of which was eventually to emerge the great tradition of contract theorizing stretching from Hobbes to Kant, we may reasonably expect to see reflected in it the hopes and fears, successes and failures, contrarieties, oppositions, and juxtapositions characteristic of the period taken as a whole. In that expectation we will not be disappointed.


The Politics of Nostalgia

Empire, Papacy, and Their Twilight Struggle

* * *

IN AN ALTERNATIVE ideological universe, one less untidy in nature than the one we actually inhabit, the papacy's triumph over the emperor Frederick II in the mid-thirteenth century, the subsequent fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and the great imperial interregnum which ensued and lasted from 1250 to 1268 would doubtless have marked the definitive end to the Western dream of a revived empire with universalist aspirations. It would also have signaled the concomitant cessation of the intermittent struggle between empire and papacy that had punctuated European history from the late eleventh century onwards. In unforgiving historical reality, however, nothing of the sort quite happened. Given the extremity of its formulation at the start of the fourteenth century by such as Aegidius Romanus and James of Viterbo, one might also have thought that there was hardly anything left to add to the imposing theoretical structure of papal aspiration. And yet, for a few decades to come, high papalists like Augustinus Triumphus and Alvarus Pelagius still labored to fill in the gaps in papalist claims and to sharpen the terms in which they were formulated. Similarly, the catastrophic fall of the Hohenstaufen notwithstanding, such German rulers as Henry VII (d. 1313) and Lewis of Bavaria (1314–47) were still moved to challenge some of those aspirations, to lead armies into northern Italy, and to advance their own rival claims in terms both practical and theoretical to possess an imperial authority at once both Roman and universal in nature. Hence, the outbreak yet once more of outright conflict between pope and emperor and the consequent generation of the last great body of controversialist writing on the subject of the proper relationship between regnum and sacerdotium, kingship and priesthood.

In light of the previous history of medieval political thinking such developments might seem to point to the continuation on into the future of business as usual. But in retrospect, at least, they can be seen to have looked rather to the past than to the future, to have represented a culmination rather than a continuation. In effect, while stopping short of ascribing nostalgic yearnings to those living at the time, perhaps one may be permitted, if only in hindsight, to classify the developments in question under the heading of a "politics of nostalgia." This is not to suggest that speculation about world monarchy or universal empire was somehow to be absent from the political thinking of subsequent centuries. To be disabused of any such notion one has only to recall to mind, for example, Tommaso Campanella's commitment in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and in connection first with the Habsburg monarchy of Spain and later with the newly ascendant Bourbon monarchy of France, to the beckoning vision of a universal, global empire, nothing less than a monarchia del mundo. Or again, later in the seventeenth century, the promulgation by the English Fifth Monarchy men (inspired by the book of Daniel and its theme of four world monarchies) of the vision of a fifth or final world monarchy destined to make its appearance when time itself was drawing to a close. What the "politics of nostalgia" designation is meant to signal, instead, is the fact that such later notions of universal empire had come in the end to be detached from the earlier medieval conception of an empire that was at once Christian, German, and Roman. And they had come to enjoy a conceptual currency independent of that more traditional and earthbound imperial entity which, by the early sixteenth century, had come to be called the Imperium Romanum Sacrum Nationis Germanicae (the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation).


Excerpted from The Watershed of Modern Politics by FRANCIS OAKLEY. Copyright © 2015 Francis Oakley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


General Introduction, ix,
Acknowledgments, xvi,
Prologue: Late Medieval and Early Modern Political Thinking: Some Metahistorical Challenges, 1,
1. Historical Orientation: From War, Plague, and Schism to Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolt, 8,
2. The Politics of Nostalgia: Empire, Papacy, and Their Twilight Struggle, 14,
3. The Politics of Virtue: Italy, the Republican Tradition, and the Humanist Political Legacy, 51,
4. The Politics of Sin: From Aegidius Romanus, Fitzralph, and Wycliffe to Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Radical Reformers, 91,
5. The Politics of Deference: Old Regal Sacrality and New Divine Right of Kingship, 128,
6. The Politics of Consent (i): politia saecularis, 172,
7. The Politics of Consent (ii): politia ecclesiastica, 209,
8. The Watershed of Modern Politics, 240,
Epilogue, 286,
Notes, 293,
Bibliography, 353,
Index, 391,

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