Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-558cb97cc8-4xlcd Total loading time: 0.323 Render date: 2022-10-07T04:26:23.411Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": true, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

11 - An ‘Aristotelian moment’: democracy in early modern England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2017

Phil Withington
University of Sheffield
Alexandra Shepard
Reader in Early Modern History, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow
Amanda J. Flather
Department of History, University of Essex
Andy Wood
Professor of Social History at the Department of History, Durham University
Keith Wrightson
Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History at Yale University
Mark Knights
Professor of History at the University of Warwick
Steve Hindle
W.M Keck Foundation Director of Research, The Huntington Library
Phil Withington
Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield
Get access


‘Democracy’ is not a word that appears too often in early modern historiography – not in political histories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; not in histories of political thought, where it perhaps might be expected to crop up; not in social histories of politics, of which John Walter has been such an important and influential exponent. One exception is debates about the democratic credentials, influences, and ambitions of the London Levellers. Others are studies of the trope of mixed government during the 1640s and claims about the democratic potential of the revolutionary ‘public sphere’. But even in works committed to establishing political consciousness and practices outwith the monarchical paradigm, democracy is mainly notable for its absence. Since the revisionism of the 1970s, political historians have preferred to talk in terms of principles rooted in common law and positions based on religious ideology. From this perspective, to talk of ‘democracy’ seems an anachronistic and dangerously ‘Whiggish’ thing to do. Intellectual historians have drawn out the ‘republican’ elements and moments of early modern political thought and traced the conceptual rise of ‘the state’, but they have not discerned an especially ‘democratic’ imaginary or way of thinking; quite the opposite. In the meantime, social historians have observed the increasing participatory extent of local governance, especially from the later sixteenth century, and observed its ‘quasi-republican’ qualities. They have also noted the forms of political agency available to social groups on the wrong side of material inequalities and asymmetries of power: riots, rumour, petitioning, and, in some instances, popular print. In his reconstruction of ‘the Colchester plunderers’, John Walter does both. What he and others have not done, by and large, is regard these politics as ‘democratic’ in any meaningful sense of the term.

The main aim of what follows is to establish just what a historically meaningful sense of democracy might be. It does so not in order to unearth the origins of modern democratic culture or to impose retrospectively modern democratic principles and practices – most obviously universal suffrage – onto early modern actors. On the contrary, the impulse behind the discussion is historicist. The chapter looks to establish whether or not English people living in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries knew the term ‘democracy’, in what contexts they did so, and what they meant by it.

Popular Culture and Political Agency in Early Modern England and Ireland
Essays in Honour of John Walter
, pp. 203 - 222
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats