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Absolutism is a troublesome word. Arthur O. Lovejoy warned that isms are ‘trouble-breeding and usually thought-obscuring terms, which one sometimes wishes to see expunged from the vocabulary of the philosopher and the historian altogether’. If this remark sounds harsh and reductive, Lovejoy's other consideration whereby isms ‘are names of complexes, not of simples’ could not be more appropriate to frame what has been attempted with this volume. ‘Absolutism’ is both a problematic historiographical category and a complex ‘compound’ of different elements: like a great many ism-terms it is a later coinage. But exploring the ways in which isms can be applied as well as the ways in which they fit with past terminology can be illuminating for the historian's work in understanding different sets of political ideas.
Our approach moves away from the three major views of absolutism: the ‘conservative’ for which it has always existed; the ‘Marxist’ for which it was an epoch between feudalism and capitalism and one contaminated by and linked to both; the ‘revisionist’ for which there was no absolutism and, therefore, we should not speak of it. Whereas these interpretations rest upon large-scale generalizations about historical process, ours is more modest but more concrete, namely the analysis of political thought in diverse historical contexts.
The fourteen essays in this volume look at both the theory and practice of monarchical governments from the Thirty Years War up until the time of the French Revolution. Contributors aim to unravel the constructs of ‘absolutism’ and ‘monarchism’, examining how the power and authority of monarchs was defined through contemporary politics and philosophy. Questions are asked as to whether it is possible to speak of a general political monarchist doctrine in early modern Europe, about the role of despotism, and the formation of national identities.
The linguistic turn in historical inquiry was taken by scholars of early modern political thought, some at least, a good while ago. For many years the attention given to discursive habits and linguistic contexts has rivalled that once devoted to kings and battles, or to social classes and economic foundations. But rather less effort than might have been expected has been devoted directly to the examination of political vocabulary; and the impact of conceptual history (Begriff sgeschichte) on English historians has perhaps been rather muted too. One can speculate on the reasons: the existence of the Oxford English Dictionary might be taken to render the former inquiries redundant; the approaches to political thought established by J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner might have been an impediment to the reception of conceptual history. Be that as it may, this chapter is a very preliminary sketch of some features of English political vocabulary in the seventeenth century, in the form of a conceptual history (though not necessarily a conceptual history of a type that would be acceptable to Reinhard Koselleck and other scholars of Begriff sgeschichte).
This chapter emerges from work begun in collaboration with other scholars and funded by the British Academy. Its starting point was an idea (adapted from earlier proposals by Phil Withington, Cathy Shrank and Jennifer Richards) of working on a lexicon of ‘keywords’ in early modern English socio-political language, though its discussions moved a long way from this.
John Morrill brought his seminal essay on ‘The religious context of the English Civil War’ to an end with a flourish: ‘The English Civil War’, he concluded, ‘was not the first European revolution: it was the last of the Wars of Religion’. A decade after the words were first written, John expressed some regret that the essay had not been thought out as well as he would have liked, and had misled others about the position he held. He focused particularly on the perennial difficulty of separating the religious from other contexts and causes. His flourish was not intended to claim that the Civil War was only about religion, although, as with other early modern religious wars, ‘religious poles are the ones around which most other discontents formed’. But the underlying issue remained that of separating religion from other things:
There are no historians nowadays who would deny that religion was an important dynamic within it [the Civil War]. But many would suggest that the use of the term ‘religion’ itself is unhelpful…[R]eligion is so interpenetrated into every aspect of early modern thought, that to say that it is the religious aspects of their thought that matters in making and shaping the conflict is a tautology.
These thoughts of John Morrill are the starting point for the present essay: how can the interpenetration of religion into all of early modern thought be teased apart for analysis?
Radicalism is a term well-entrenched in the historian's lexicon. A search on the Royal Historical Society's on-line bibliography for British and Irish history retrieves nearly 300 books, essays and articles that use the word in their title. The total rises to nearly 850 if the search term used is ‘radical’ rather than ‘radicalism’. Radicals and radicalism are everywhere, at least from the sixteenth century onwards. They come in all sorts of varieties, popular and elite, of the left and of the right, Tory and Whig; British, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. But the word is, in many of its uses, curiously weak. We are likely to have a rough idea of the sorts of things that might be meant by calling someone a socialist, a conservative or a liberal, and a corresponding sense of what the equivalent ‘isms’ might look like, even if that sense quickly becomes complex and sub-divided. But what sense do we get from hearing someone described as a radical? We would assume that the ‘socialisms’ of different periods might show some resemblances (however forced or artificial), and there is a recognisable core meaning in describing Thomas More, Gerrard Winstanley and Karl Marx as communists. All of them envisaged an ideal society in which private property was abolished. They have all been described as radicals too, but it seems less clear what this label tells us about them.
An exploration of the place of radical ideas and activity in English political and social history over three centuries. Its core concern is whether a long-term history of radicalism can be written. Are the things that historians label 'radical' linked into a single complex radical tradition, or are they separate phenomena linked only by the minds and language of historians? Does the historiography of radicalism uncover a repressed dimension of English history, or is it a construct that serves the needs of the present more than the understanding of the past? The book contains a variety of answers to these questions. As well as an introduction and eleven substantive chapters, it also includes two 'afterwords' which reflect on the implications of the book as a whole for the study of radicalism. The distinguished list of contributors is drawn from a variety of disciplines, including history, political science, and literary studies.