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Ancient Constitutions — Politics and the Past

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Abstract

In the past people thought differently. The point is a deceptively obvious one. It is always tempting to interpret ideas from the past in ways that make them more like our own than they really were. No matter how frequently we remind ourselves of the differences between the past and the present, our very habits of mind encourage us to abridge them. The study of past ideas must always be in part a process of defamiliarization. In early-seventeenth century England there were two common ways of legitimating the political rules and arrangements of the present,1 and both of them are liable to look bizarre to modem eyes. One of these ways involved the employment of the concept of custom, the other the concept of grace. Things were legitimate either because they were customary, or because they were the product of God’s grace. In the hyper-rationalistic twentieth century neither of these justifications seems particularly persuasive, and a considerable degree of effort is required for us to rethink the thoughts of people for whom these concepts were of such legitimating power.

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  1. 1.
    J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Movement: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975), chpt. X.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The seminal work is J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1957; reissued with additional material 1987). See the use made of it in David Wootton’s introduction to Wootton (ed.), Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England (Harmondsworth, 1986), pp. 22–38; andGoogle Scholar
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  4. 5.
    The description of English common law as ‘custom’ (or rather as akin to custom) probably arose from the difficulty of describing its principles in the categories of Roman law. It was not quite lex (because unwritten) and not quite consuetudines (because general rather than local). Hence Bracton’s explanation of why it was still appropriate to call English common law a true type of law, even though unwritten: Ewart Lewis, Medieval Political Ideas (London, 2 vols, 1954), vol. I, pp. 39–40. See also F. Pollock & F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law (Cambridge, 2nd ed., 2 vols, 1911), pp. 174–78. An important new examination of the concept of custom has come to my attention since this chapter was substantially completed: Donald R. Kelley, ‘“Second Nature”: The Idea of Custom in European Law, Society, and Culture’, in Anthony Grafton & Ann Blair (eds), The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia, 1990), chpt. 4.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    James I, ‘The King’s Proposals for an Union’ in The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 vol. I (1066–1625) (London, 1806), col. 1020: ‘the fundamental laws, priviledges, and good customs of this kingdom, whereby only the king’s princely authority is conserved, and the people’s (both in general and particular) security of their lands, living, and priviledges, is maintained unto them.’ Compare also James’s comment, delivered to Parliament via Salisbury in 1610: ‘the marriage between law and prerogative is inseparable and like twins they must joy and mourn together, live and die together, the separation of the one is the ruin of the other’ — Elizabeth R. Foster (ed.), Proceedings in Parliament 1610 (New Haven, 2 vols, 1966), vol. II, p. 5Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Sir John Fortescue, Laudibus Legum Anglie (ed. & trans. S. B. Chrimes) (Cambridge, 1949), chpt. XVII, p. 39.Google Scholar
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    An introductory comparison of the two disciplines can be found in Eric Cochrane, Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago, 1981), chpt. 15. N.B. also Cochrane’s demonstration that both historians and antiquarians aimed at discovering the ‘truth’, notwithstanding their commitment to the usefulness of knowledge of the past (p. 432).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a useful overview, Philip Styles, ‘Politics and Historical Research in the Early Seventeenth Century’, in Levi Fox (ed.), English Historical Scholarship in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Oxford, 1956), pp. 49–72. Also invaluable on the political uses of antiquarian scholarship is Kevin Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton 1586–1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1979), Part I and chpt. VII. (Sharpe brings out well how the historical attitudes of the antiquarians shared the preconceptions that I have outlined.) For introductions to antiquarianism see Joseph M. Levine, Humanism and History: Origins of Modern English Historiography (Ithaca NY, 1987), chpt. 3.Google Scholar
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  20. 26.
    On this subject see Mary F. Tenney, ‘Tacitus in the Politics of Early Stuart England’, Classical Journal vol. 37 (1941), pp. 151–63Google Scholar
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  24. 27.
    Pocock, Ancient Constitution pp. 17–18. Further material on the themes discussed here is in J. G. A. Pocock, ‘The Origins of Study of the Past: A Comparative Approach’, Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 4 (1962), pp. 209–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  27. 31.
    Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Sixteenth-Century Revolution in the Methodology of Law and History (New York, 1963). Kelley has also published a large number of articles on various aspects of the matter, amongst which are ‘Civil Science in the Renaissance: Jurisprudence Italian Style’, Historical Journal vol 22 (1979), pp. 777–94; ‘Civil Science in the Renaissance: Jurisprudence in the French Manner’, History of European Ideas vol. 2, (1981), pp. 261–76; and ‘The Rise of Legal History in the Renaissance’, History and Theory vol. 9 (1970), pp. 174–94. A useful overview is Kelley, ‘The Theory of History’ in Charles B. Schmitt & Quentin Skinner (eds), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge, 1988), chpt. 21.Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    Pocock, Ancient Constitution chpts II & III; Donald R. Kelley, ‘History, English Law and the Renaissance’, Past and Present No. 65 (1974), pp. 24–51.Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    Criticisms of the insularity thesis include Christopher Brooks & Kevin Sharpe, ‘Debate: History, English Law and the Renaissance’, Past and Present No. 72 (1976), pp. 133–42Google Scholar
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  34. Kelley, ‘A Rejoinder’, Past and Present No. 72 (1976), pp. 143–46Google Scholar
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  36. 34.
    Zachary Sayre Schiffman, ‘Renaissance Historicism Reconsidered’, History and Theory vol. 24 (1985), pp. 170–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Schiffman, ‘An Anatomy of the Historical Revolution in Renaissance France’, Renaissance Quarterly vol. 42 (1989), pp. 507–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  39. 37.
    Hugo Grotius, A Treatise of the Antiquity of the Commonwealth of the Battavers (London, 1649), epistle dedicatory.Google Scholar
  40. 38.
    It should be recognised that Pocock was not without a precursor in this: Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (Cambridge, 1944). Cf. Pocock, Ancient Constitution pp. vii-ix, xi, xiv.Google Scholar
  41. 39.
    Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 2 vols, 1978), vol. II, p. 310. See also Ralph Giesey, ‘When and Why Hotman wrote the Francogallia’, Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance vol. 29 (1967), pp. 581–611Google Scholar
  42. Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1980), pp. 49–53.Google Scholar
  43. 42.
    Arthur H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (Edinburgh, 1979), pp. 107–16Google Scholar
  44. H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘George Buchanan and the Ancient Scottish Constitution’, English Historical Review Supplement 3, 1966Google Scholar
  45. I. D. MacFarlane, Buchanan (London, 1981), chpts 11 & 12 and Skinner Foundations vol. 2, pp. 339ff.Google Scholar
  46. 44.
    Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 69–93Google Scholar
  47. I. Schöffer,‘The Batavian Myth during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centures’, in J. S. Bromley & E. H. Kossmann (eds), Britain and the Netherlands V (The Hague, 1975), chpt. 5.Google Scholar
  48. 45.
    See the English translation by Thomas Woods, A Treatise of the Antiquity of the Commonwealth of the Battavers (1649).Google Scholar
  49. 46.
    Ibid., pp. 145–9. For the context see W. S. M. Knight, The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (London, 1925), pp. 121–5Google Scholar
  50. E. H. Kossmann, ‘The Development of Dutch Political Theory in the Seventeenth Century’ in J. S. Bromley & E. H. Kossmann (eds), Britain and the Netherlands I (London, 1960), p. 94.Google Scholar
  51. 48.
    I am dependent here on Martyn P. Thompson, ‘The History of Fundamental Law in Political Thought from the French wars of Religion to the American Revolution’, American Historical Review vol. 91 (1986), pp. 1121ff. (esp. 1123). This article has been of general use in understanding the background to English ancient constitutionalism; see also Harro Höpfl & Martyn P. Thompson, ‘The History of Contract as a Motif in Political Thought’, American Historical Review vol. 84 (1979), pp. 919–44.Google Scholar

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© Glenn Burgess 1992

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