The key to early Renaissance thought in England has often, and rightly, been sought in that twilight zone which is both medieval and modern in character, yet is, in a sense, neither. In that indistinct area the early Tudor view of society expressed in the concept of the “very and true commonweal” constitutes a prominent but equivocal landmark. Any student of the period knows that the idea was conservative, even reactionary in its implications, inspired in large part by a suspicious distaste for the changes that were taking place in early sixteenth-century England. Those, on the other hand, who have read at all carefully the comments made by these same Englishmen on the state of their own society know that they accepted in varying degrees the facts of change, subjected them to an often searching analysis, and in several important instances arrived at constructive policies on the basis of their analysis of social cause. What, then, is one to make of this paradox presented by constructive realism deployed in the cause of a reactionary social ideal, exploration of change conducted within an ostensibly static framework? Perhaps, as with so many aspects of early Renaissance thought, the difficulty is more apparent than real. Perhaps the commonwealth idea was not so nearly static as it appeared. Perhaps, indeed, the traditional formulas in which it ordinarily found expression simply mask a new sense of change, a dawning awareness of social process.
Failure to understand the true nature of the ambivalence that seems at times to be built into the thought of the period, failure in particular to allow for the divergence between traditional theory, part of the rich legacy of medieval thought, and fresh attitudes prompted by actual experience in a time of revolutionary change, has too often resulted in failure also to appreciate the significance of the early Tudor pamphleteers and commentators of various sorts who examined their society with an eye both critical and constructive.