Avoiding Excessive Drinking, Witty Tricks, and Moral Models: The Memorandum Book of a Seventeenth-Century Lawyer

Recent weeks have seen explosive revelations in America regarding the alleged teenage antics thirty years ago of Donald Trump's supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The allegations of excessive drinking, sexual harassment, and unacceptable behaviour against a young man who would go on to have a notable legal career reminded me of another young lawyer, this time from the seventeenth century, and his reflections on behaviour and morality.

 British Library Add MS 4174, Memorandum Book of Justinian Pagitt. Reproduced with permission from the British Library.

British Library Add MS 4174, Memorandum Book of Justinian Pagitt. Reproduced with permission from the British Library.

That lawyer was Justinian Pagitt (1611/12-1668) who trained at the Middle Temple before going on to a legal and administrative career both during the Interregnum and under Charles II. Pagitt held, among other positions, the office of clerk of the treasury and keeper of writs and records in the court of King's Bench. While official records can be used to trace his public career, we are able to glimpse more intangible aspects of his life thanks to a little known manuscript volume entitled 'The Memorandum Book of J. Pagitt' which is held in the British Library manuscript collection.

I came across this volume because it contains one of a disappointingly small number of references within the British Library's manuscript collection to 'James Harrington'. Moreover, unlike most of the other references thrown up by a search of the catalogue, I was fairly sure that this one did relate to 'my' James Harrington - the author of The Commonwealth of Oceana.

The specific document to which the Harrington reference points is a letter written to Harrington, in early 1634, by Pagitt. The content of the letter, while undistinguished in itself, was of some significance to me in that it filled in gaps in our rather patchy knowledge of Harrington's life prior to the publication of Oceana in 1656. Just how it does so is set out in my forthcoming book. Yet while scanning the volume, I realised that it was of interest beyond what it has to say about Harrington, his early life, and his relations with Pagitt.

The memorandum book consists of entries on a variety of subjects. These are prefaced by a contents page, suggesting that it was intended to be used, probably by its author, since this would make locating a specific entry easier. Several entries are particularly eye-catching. 

 ‘How to avoyd overmuch drinking in Company’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book. AD MS. 4174 ff.66-7.

‘How to avoyd overmuch drinking in Company’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book. AD MS. 4174 ff.66-7.

One is entitled 'How to avoyd overmuch drinking in Company'. Over three pages it offers thirteen tips for achieving this goal. It starts by counselling wariness and caution with regard to the company one keeps when drinking. It is, however, realistic in acknowledging that a young man may find himself at a tavern with those who are drinking excessively and that, particularly when toasts are being drunk, it is difficult to avoid participating without appearing churlish. In these circumstances, Pagitt recommends either drinking just a little so as not to end up imbibing too much or feigning illness:

If they urge you to drinke, after a glasse or two faine your self ill & presently go lye down on the bed & then faine to sleepe. Or else clasp yr handkerchief to your nose as if yu bled & presently go dooene stairs & call for a bason of water &c.

While these tactics might seem a little lame, Pagitt did also posit more robust responses:

If these dissioulacons will not serve turne, & if they urge you obstinately tell them though it be their humour to be madd & drunk, yet it is yours to be merry & sober & if they be so resolute to maintain their humour you are as resolute to maintain yours.

 ‘Witty Tricks’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book.

‘Witty Tricks’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book.

On another page Pagitt recounts the kinds of 'Witty tricks' that young gentlemen in the seventeenth century played on each other. In the first, 'Mr Sandys of Grayes Inn' bet a quart of wine that he could draw a knife through a tobacco pipe, but instead of cutting through the pipe as his audience presumably expected he tied a piece of string to the knife and pulled both through the pipe. Secondly he held three pieces of pipe in his fingers and asked which would be broken first. When one of the audience suggested a particular pipe he would take one of the others in his hands and break it. Thirdly, he placed a bet that an individual should not say 'this glass of wine' and then asked him two questions, the wording of which forced him into saying 'this glass of wine' and therefore losing the bet.

 ‘Cum quibus conversando est’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book. Add MS. 4174 f.108.

‘Cum quibus conversando est’ from Pagitt’s Memorandum Book. Add MS. 4174 f.108.

Towards the end of the volume is an entry that provides further insight into Pagitt's moral character. The page is headed 'Cum quibus conversandum est', which translates as 'with whom one ought to consort'. Here Pagitt lists those men who are like him in nature, manners, age and studies and those 'from whome I may receive most benefitt in their consultation'. These appear to have been individuals he saw as positive role models, whose behaviour he might emulate, as much as those from whom he might be able to gain advantage.

Pagitt's Memorandum Book reminds us that the people who produced the sources that we consult as historians were living human beings with similar characteristics and flaws, facing some of the same concerns and temptations that we face. In this light, perhaps Pagitt's reflective attitude regarding his own behaviour remains worthy of emulation today. 

(I am grateful to Jeremy Boulton, Katie East, and Sam Petty for assistance with different aspects of this post; to the British Library for permission to reproduce low resolution images of pages from Pagitt's Memorandum Book; and to Louise at Squarespace for technical support).

The Seventeenth-Century Fitbit and Other Early-Modern Inventions

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As I start to write this, my children and I are in our final days of training for the Junior Great North Run, in which they are participating to raise money for Cancer Research. We have also recently completed our annual Bank Holiday walk, which is another way in which we as a family remember my late husband, John Gurney, since walking was a particular passion of his. This year we walked up the Northumberland Coastal Path from Craster to Berwick upon Tweed over four days. Given all this activity, our Fitbits, the nifty pedometers that strap to your wrist and measure your steps, have been much used. The Fitbit seems to represent a characteristically twenty-first century idea, combining current obsessions with fitness and digital technology, but, while researching my intellectual biography of James Harrington, I came across a description from the mid-seventeenth century of what appears to be a very similar device: 

 Portrait of John Wilkins by Abraham Blooteling, after Mary Beale, c.1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19054. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Portrait of John Wilkins by Abraham Blooteling, after Mary Beale, c.1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19054. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

They have been contrived also into little pocket instruments, by which after a man hath walked a whole day together, he may easily know how many steps he hath taken. (John Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick, or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanicall geometry, London, 1648, p. 163).

The author of this passage, John Wilkins, was a theologian, natural philosopher, and the Warden of Wadham College Oxford. He was not the inventor of this device, but was describing an instrument he had read about in the works of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius who lived during the first century BCE, making this precursor to the Fitbit not simply a seventeenth-century idea, but one with its roots back in the ancient world.

 Frontispiece to John Wilkins,  Mathematicall Magick . This and the other images below are all reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Friends 38.  I am grateful to Sam Petty for assistance in reproducing these images.

Frontispiece to John Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick. This and the other images below are all reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Friends 38.

I am grateful to Sam Petty for assistance in reproducing these images.

Wilkins's book, Mathematicall Magick, was a popular guide to mechanical inventions. In the spirit of the scientific circles in which he mixed, Wilkins set such knowledge firmly in a religious context, citing Heraclitus on the idea that divine power and wisdom could be discerned even in the common arts. He was also keen to emphasise the utility of such knowledge and the importance of it being disseminated widely. He noted that the eminence of the Germans for mechanical inventions had been attributed to the public lectures given there in Latin and the vernacular. He perhaps hoped his book would perform a similar function in England. Certainly, publishing in English, at a time when many scientific books still appeared in Latin, was deliberate. Explaining his choice of title, Wilkins alluded both to the audience at which the book was directed and its aim:

This whole Discourse I call Mathematicall Magick, because the art of such Mechanicall inventions as are here chiefly insisted upon, hath been formerly so styled; and in allusion to vulgar opinion, which doth commonly attribute all such strange operations unto the power of Magick (Address to the Reader).

wilkinsmathematicallmagickwheel.jpg

In an attempt to enlighten his readers, Part 1 of the work described the six primary mechanical principles: the balance; the lever; the wheel; the pulley; the wedge; and the screw. Part 2 examined the various kinds of automata that could be developed on the basis of these principles. It was here that various inventions, including the description of the forerunner to the Fitbit, could be found.

Other inventions described in the book are equally prescient. Wilkins devotes some attention to Marin Mersenne's idea of 'a ship, wherein men may safely swim under water', effectively a submarine. (p. 178). He claims that this was already subject to practical experimentation in England by Cornelius Dreble. Wilkins admitted that the idea had not yet been perfected, noting three particular difficulties: how to get things into and out of the vessel without taking in water; how to direct it to particular destinations in the absence of winds and tides for motion and sight of the heavens for direction; and how to get air into the vehicle for respiration and fire for light, warmth and cooking without causing further problems. He went on to offer potential solutions for each.

 Unfortunately no illustrations of the submarine or flying chariot appear in the text, but this image and the next are of the ‘sailing chariot’ which Wilkins also discusses.

Unfortunately no illustrations of the submarine or flying chariot appear in the text, but this image and the next are of the ‘sailing chariot’ which Wilkins also discusses.

Wilkins also explored the possibility of a flying automaton that could propel itself. He was well aware of the potential utility of such a machine, claiming: 'there is not any imaginable invention that could prove of greater benefit to the world, or glory to the Author'. (p. 195). The most likely means by which human flight might be achieved, Wilkins suggested, was by flying chariot. While he acknowledged the difficulties involved in creating a vehicle that would be large enough to hold a human and yet light enough to be propelled, he did not think it improbable that the difficulties would be overcome in time. He was also forward-thinking in his sense of the possibilities it would offer:

wilkinsmathematicallmagicksales2.jpg

besides the discoveries which might be thereby made in the lunary world; It would be serviceable also for the conveyance of a man to any remote place of this earth: as suppose to the Indies or Antipodes. For when once it was elevated for some few miles, so as to be above that orb of magnetick virtue, which is carried about by the earths diurnall revolution, it might then be very easily and speedily directed to any particular place of this great globe. (p. 220).

In aspiration, if not quite in detail, Wilkins was often not far wrong.

 Harrington ridiculed Wilkins’s suggestion, illustrated here, that it would be possible to uproot a tree using only a machine constructed of two double pulleys, twelve wheels and a sail.

Harrington ridiculed Wilkins’s suggestion, illustrated here, that it would be possible to uproot a tree using only a machine constructed of two double pulleys, twelve wheels and a sail.

While I came across Wilkins during research into Harrington, the relationship between these two men was not happy. They were born near each other in Northamptonshire in the early 1610s, attended Oxford University, and spent time during the 1640s in the service of Charles Louis, the Prince Elector Palatine, with whom they both appear to have had a good relationship. Wilkins even dedicated Mathematicall Magick to Charles Louis, to whom he claimed to owe everything. Yet Wilkins' friend, Matthew Wren, claimed that Harrington saw Wilkins as 'one averse from his Principles and Designes' and suggested mischievously that dedicating his own attack on Harrington to Wilkins would 'excite' Harrington's 'utmost rage'. (Matthew Wren, Monarchy Asserted: Or the State of Monarchicall & Popular Government, London, 1659, The Epistle Dedicatory). I explore the antagonism between Harrington and Wilkins on political, methodological, religious and philosophical matters in my forthcoming book.

My British Academy Fellowship has now ended and by the time this blogpost appears the book that I was working on during that Fellowship should have been submitted to the publisher. In the lull following the effort of completing the book manuscript, I will use the next few blogposts to reflect on some of the fascinating primary texts I have come across during my research into Harrington, of which Wilkins's Mathematicall Magick is a good example.

Representation and Misrepresentation

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Last month I wrote about the 'Translating Cultures' workshop that I attended at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany in late June 2018. The same week I also spoke at the Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought held at UCL in London. The theme this year was 'Representation and Misrepresentation' and I was honoured to be invited to deliver the keynote address. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first five panels, but I heard some fascinating, inspirational papers that led me to reflect on several key themes.

One of these was the sheer complexity of the concepts 'representation' and 'misrepresentation'. This complexity has a long history. While representative government is often associated with modern democracy - with representation presented as a means of making democratic government workable in large modern nation states - Ludmilla Lorrain reminded us that representation was originally developed in opposition to democracy. Late eighteenth-century advocates of representative government - for instance, the American founding fathers, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Edmund Burke - believed democracy ought to be avoided, and instead celebrated representative government as superior. In this context, Lorrain argued, William Godwin's commitment to 'representative democracy' is worthy of investigation.

Benjamin Constant, as Arthur Ghins demonstrated, sided with Sieyès and Burke rather than Godwin. The advantage of representation for Constant was not that it made democracy possible, but rather that it would result in good political decisions. Ghins also argued that Constant was more concerned with representing interests than individuals, further complicating what we understand by political representation. 

 John Stuart Mill, replica by George Frederick Watts, 1873. National Portrait Gallery NPG 1090. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

John Stuart Mill, replica by George Frederick Watts, 1873. National Portrait Gallery NPG 1090. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

The question of who or what was to be represented was always contentious, and from the French Revolution onwards some claimed that representation ought to extend to women as well as men. John Stuart Mill was a particularly strong advocate of this claim. In her paper, Stephanie Conway argued for the centrality of this commitment within Mill's thought. Mill, she suggested, believed that the enfranchisement of women would solve the pressing problem of overpopulation.

Alongside who should be represented, the tools used to exercise representation have also proved contentious. The timely issue of the uses of referenda in representative governments was explored by Gareth Stedman Jones, in his introductory address, and by Ariane Fichtl. Opening her paper with a reference to Jacques Louis David's painting 'The Oath of the Horatii', Fichtl noted that the Horatii were eventually acquitted after an appeal to the Roman popular assembly. Yet in 1792 it was the Girondins, rather than David's allies the Jacobins, who advanced the idea of referring the decision about what should be done with the former French king to the people. Stedman Jones noted that under both Napoleon III and Hitler referenda were used as a means of providing apparent democratic accountability in systems that were some way from being democratic.

 Jacques-Louis David, 'Oath of the Horatii', 1784. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons -  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David-Oath_of_the_Horatii-1784.jpg

Jacques-Louis David, 'Oath of the Horatii', 1784. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David-Oath_of_the_Horatii-1784.jpg

 Sir William Temple, Bt., after Sir Peter Lely. Based on a work of c.1660. National Portrait Gallery NPG 152. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Sir William Temple, Bt., after Sir Peter Lely. Based on a work of c.1660. National Portrait Gallery NPG 152. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

As well as causing me to reflect on the complexities of representation, the papers also encouraged me to think about the nature of the history of political thought as a field. In the first place it is clear that the importance of examining works in their historical and intellectual context - as pioneered by the Cambridge School - remains a useful and revealing methodology. Interestingly, it was, perhaps, the speakers from the European University Institute in Florence who displayed the richness of that approach most eloquently. Bert Drejer explored the revisions that Johannes Althusius made to the 1610 and 1614 editions of his Politica, methodice digest in response to changing circumstances. Moreover, in answering questions he noted that part of the reason for Althusius's greater emphasis on cities in the later editions was probably that he had become a syndic himself in the intervening period. Juha Haavisto is writing an intellectual history of William Temple and very much seeking to set Temple's thought in its context. He described Temple as a practical and pragmatic writer whose lack of consistency can be explained by the fact that he often adapted his thought to the circumstances. Elias Buchetmann is working on a contextual reading of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy. He argued that Hegel's observation of events in Württemberg, particularly the constitutional crisis of 1815-19, had a significant impact on the development of his thought. Morgan Golf-French also touched on this approach in his question to Ghins regarding the relationship between Constant's liberalism and his knowledge of, and engagement with, the German context.

 Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes,  Leviathan  with its image depicting the state literally representing or embodying the population. Reproduced with permission from Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (Bai 1651 HOB).

Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with its image depicting the state literally representing or embodying the population. Reproduced with permission from Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (Bai 1651 HOB).

While suggesting much continuity, these papers also showed signs of new developments and trajectories in the history of political thought. In particular, it is clear that there is a growing tendency towards branching out from politics, narrowly defined, to explore the interrelationship between politics and other fields of knowledge. The 2009 book Seeing Things Their Way put forward a two-pronged argument: that advocates of the Cambridge School have often ignored or downplayed the religious dimension of earlier thought; and yet that their methodology is particularly conducive to understanding and making sense of religious beliefs and convictions in their own terms (Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, ed. Alister Chapman, John Coffey and Brad S. Gregory. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). Building on this idea, Connor Robinson reminded us that debates about the polity took place within the church as well as the state in seventeenth-century England. He suggested that ideas of representation in that period might usefully be read against the background of Protestantism, showing that the ideas and practices of the early church were central to the responses that James Harrington and Henry Vane made to Thomas Hobbes. Barret Reiter also linked political and religious thought, presenting Hobbes's interest in the problem of idolatry as part of a much wider concern with the fancy or imagination. The root of Hobbes's concern with idolatry, Reiter argued, lay in the individual following his own imagination rather than obeying the sovereign.

Other papers touched on other relationships. Alex Mortimore examined the way in which political ideas could be expressed in literary form, specifically in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's work Die Aufgeregten (The Agitation), which was written in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution. I was particularly struck by the subtitle of this work 'A Political Drama' and wondered whether this was a common genre at the time or whether it was prompted by Goethe's reaction to this highly charged political moment. The paper served to remind us that literary sources can be just as valuable as political texts in reflecting the political views being expressed and debated at particular points in time.

Economics is another discipline that is closely related to politics and that was often not fully distinguished from it in earlier periods. Both Ghins's paper and that by Henri-Pierre Mottironi explored the interrelationship between politics and economics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mottironi demonstrated that the French Physiocrats modelled their ideas of citizenship, taxation, and representation on practices that were well established in corporate institutions, including joint stock companies such as the French East India Company. Sieyès then derived his understanding of these same concepts from the Physiocratic model and embodied them in his constitutional proposals many of which were reflected in the French constitution of 1791. While convinced of this borrowing, I was also struck by the tension that this brings to light between what revolutionaries like Sieyès were claiming and what they were doing. Sieyès set out to replace the unjust and unequal organisation of French society around corporate bodies such as the Estates with a more equal and rational system centred on individuals. Yet Mottironi's work suggests that in the very conception of this new rational model Sieyès was himself drawing on practices that operated in corporations like the joint stock companies.

Perhaps it is precisely because political concepts are so complex that the history of political thought is in such rude health?

Translating Cultures

 Exterior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

Exterior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

In June 2018 I attended two excellent conferences at which I was able to present some of the findings of the research I have completed during my British Academy fellowship. It seems appropriate, then, to reflect on those conferences and my thoughts about them. I cannot, in two blogposts, do justice to the rich nature of all the papers. Rather I will draw out certain themes that struck me as pertinent to my work and demanding further reflection. This blogpost will deal with the first conference of the week, which took place in Wolfenbüttel, Germany on 26-27 June. In September's blogpost I will deal with the Graduate Conference on the History of Political Thought, which was held in London on 28-29 June.

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'Translating Cultures: Translation, Transmission and Dissemination of Printed Texts in Europe, 1640-1795' was held at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and organised by Thomas Munck from the University of Glasgow and Gaby Mahlberg, an independent historian who now also works as a journalist in Berlin. Fittingly, the idea for a workshop on translation arose when these two academics met at the Herzog August Bibliothek when they were both carrying out research there, thanks to the institution's generous research fellowship programme. This setting was the perfect place in which to hold such a workshop since it is Germany's national library for the seventeenth century. It owes this distinction to the fact that it houses one of the few intact seventeenth-century libraries still in existence, much of which was collected by Duke August (1579-1666) after whom the library is named.

 Interior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

Interior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

During the course of the workshop, we took time out to be given a tour of the library. We were shown the books, many still bound in their original white coverings, which are organised according to eight themes and placed on the shelves by theme and in height order. We were also shown the catalogue that Duke August produced himself and the wonderful seventeenth-century book wheel which was made to hold it. We learnt that, in its original location, the library was housed immediately above the stables. It struck me that Harrington would have appreciated this arrangement, given his notion that the foundation of power is grounded in land (and in the military force - including horses - needed to protect it), but that at the level of the superstructure, power also comprises authority and that this requires reason - including the knowledge found in books.

 Duke August's catalogue. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

Duke August's catalogue. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

In his opening paper, Thomas Munck introduced several important themes. One of these was the idea of tracing when key works in the history of political thought were translated into particular European languages, in order to uncover the motivations behind those translations. I was already aware that a number of English republican works were translated into French during the French Revolution. I included a list of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century French translations of English republican writings in an appendix to my last monograph, which shows that at least ten such works were published  between 1789 and 1801. Munck's research identifies at least another five English political works that also appeared during that period. More precise research is also revealing. As noted in the papers that Miriam-Isabelle Ducroq and I gave at the workshop, the two French translations of Harrington's works that were published during 1795 were directly relevant to the very particular circumstances of that year - and especially the debates over the introduction of a bicameral legislature and the form it ought to take.

As well as translations being inspired by particular circumstances, works also sometimes had to be adapted to fit new contexts. In the case of scientific translations this could involve having to make careful choices regarding vocabulary, or even updating the original text to reflect advances in scientific knowledge since the original work had appeared. Sietske Fransen described examples of the former in German translations of the works of Jan Baptist van Helmont, where the lack of an established German vocabulary for the new science forced translators to give new meanings to words. Similarly, Lázló Kontler found that German translations of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes were adapted in order to reflect subsequent advances in the discipline.

 Books from Duke August's library. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

Books from Duke August's library. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

In a parallel way, translations of political works sometimes distorted the meaning of the original text in order to better fit new circumstances or the concerns of the author.  Munck addressed this in relation to André Morellet's translation of Cesare Beccaria's work on crime and punishment, raising the question of at what point translations become completely distinct works. Gaby Mahlberg demonstrated that the German translations of Algernon Sidney's Discourses produced in 1793 and 1795 were quite different from the seventeenth-century original. Those texts were edited, cut and moderated, so as to turn Sidney from a defender of rebellion into a proponent of good citizenship. The text became a defence of moderate constitutional monarchy against the radical forces of the French Revolution (ironically at exactly the time when the French were using him and his associates to endorse their revolution). In a similar way, Wyger Velema showed how Dutch translations of the classics were employed on both sides of the patriot debate in The Netherlands in the late eighteenth century. 

Distortions could also arise and be perpetuated through the common practice of one translation being used, in place of the original, as the base text for later translations. Asaph Ben-Tov explored an extreme example of this in his discussion of early modern translations of the Koran into European languages - many of which were produced by scholars who knew little or no Arabic.

Distortion is also linked to another theme that loomed large in our discussions: audience. Both Alessia Castagnino, in her consideration of the theory and practice of translation in eighteenth-century Italy, and Luc Borot, in his comparison of two translations of Thomas Hobbes's De Cive, commented on this issue. Castagnino emphasised the fact that one common justification for producing a translation is to make a book that is deemed useful available to a wider public - including those whose linguistic skills may be limited. Borot noted that different translators may aim at different audiences such as those with greater technical knowledge and experience as compared with the general public; and that these decisions impact directly on the translation itself. 

Yet the relationship between translator and audience can be complex. Both Helmer Helmers and Rachel Foxley cited examples in their papers of works which might be read differently depending on the linguistic skills of the reader. In the case of the diplomatic translations examined by Helmers, some of the jokes presented in those works would only be fully understood by multilingual readers. Similarly, Foxley noted that readers of Marchamont Nedham's The Case of the Commonwealth would have a different experience of the text depending on whether or not they understood Latin. Nedham's translation of Juvenal's famous tag 'Panem & Circenses' as 'Bread and Quietnesse', rather than the more commonly used 'bread and circuses', will have produced a rather different understanding without knowledge of the original Latin.

Finally, several papers reminded us of the importance of paying attention not just to the words, but also to translation as a business and books as material objects. Ann Thomson's study of Pierre Desmaizeaux offered insight into some of the causes of translators distorting original texts, by reminding us that the extent of their freedom could be seriously limited by agents and publishers. Mark Somos's fascinating paper on census bibliographies, which trace and describe all extant copies of a particular work, revealed the insights that can be drawn from such research. This led me back to thinking about Harrington and to wonder what a census bibliography of his works might reveal.

A New Utopia: Oceana for the 21st Century

 Frontispiece to James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Frontispiece to James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

George Monbiot's book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis calls for the creation of a "politics of belonging". He is not the only person to suggest, in recent months, that a new way of thinking about politics is required. These calls have prompted me to think again about the utopian character of James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana

Historians have long debated whether Oceana should be labelled as a utopia at all, partly because it was very clearly intended as a practical model for a specific place and time. Yet Colin Davis, author of Utopia and the Ideal Society, sees this as precisely one of the key features of a utopia. Davis argues that what distinguishes utopias from other conceptions of the ideal society is their acceptance that limited resources are exposed to unlimited desires: 'The utopian's method is not to wish away the disharmony implicit within the collective problem, as the other ideal-society types do, but to organise society and its institutions in such a way as to contain the problem's effects.' (Colin Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 37-8). This kind of model, one that takes human society as it is and offers practical solutions to human problems - and yet pushes beyond the framework of the current system - is precisely what we need just now. So what would an Oceana for the twenty-first century look like?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that, in the first place, my twenty-first century Oceana would seek to challenge the idea that politics is the preserve of a distinct political class. Harrington, following Aristotle, believed every citizen should rule and be ruled in turn. He also insisted that human nature dictated that individuals who held power for long periods of time (however good and virtuous they were in the first place) would inevitably become corrupt. Harrington's solution was the rotation of office, with representatives being in post for three years before standing down and being ineligible for re-election for a similar term. Something like this system could be introduced in the UK Parliament. Of course there are problems that would need to be addressed. Being effectively made redundant after three years may deter certain individuals (perhaps particularly the poorest) from standing at all, so jobs would need to be held open and provision made to support those retiring from office. But the potential advantages of politics being an activity in which most citizens engage at some point, rather than the preserve of a political élite, are significant.

 Thirteenth order of Harrington's  Oceana  on the agrarian law.

Thirteenth order of Harrington's Oceana on the agrarian law.

Another central tenet of Harrington's political programme was the preservation of an equitable division of land within the nation. This was necessary to maintain a balance of property, and hence of power, suitable for commonwealth government. Harrington sought to achieve this through his agrarian law, which required those owning large tracts of land to divide their estate more equally among their children. While land is still a crucial source of the wealth of the super-rich, it has largely been replaced by money as the basis of power. My concern here is not with the redistribution of property in either its landed or monetary form, but rather with the means by which the majority of us earn our money. Work is currently divided in ways that are uneven, creating unhappiness both among those who have too much and those who have too little. Earlier this year the New Zealand trustee company Perpetual Guardian initiated a six-week trial in which its employees were to work four days a week while being paid for five, and in this country the Autonomy Institute has called for the implementation of a four-day week. I am one of a growing number of parents who have made the  switch to working four days a week. While there is a danger (for those of us doing four days' work for four days' pay) of succumbing to the tendency to do five days' work in four, my experience is that a four-day week makes for a better work-life balance, for those able to take it. There are also potential benefits for others since, in my own and many other professions, a large number of highly talented young people are struggling to get their feet on the career ladder. If more people worked fewer days a week then more positions would open up for junior staff. Of course, employers may well complain that it would create a less efficient system. But we could off-set the inefficiencies of having to employ more staff against the efficiencies gained from workers being less tired, more motivated, and less susceptible to stress and its associated health problems. Nor should this change in work patterns be available only to professionals. A wholesale reconsideration of what constitutes a working week ought to address changes and benefits that can be brought to all workers.

Finally, Harrington's commitment to healing and settling a divided nation could be developed for the twenty-first century. As I demonstrated in a previous blogpost, he insisted that peace could only be established in post-civil war England if those on both sides of the royalist-parliamentarian divide were allowed to engage equally as citizens. He was also a strong advocate of religious toleration, insisting that no-one's right to citizenship or to hold office should be rescinded on the basis of religious belief. The Brexit Referendum, along with the debates at home and negotiations in Europe that have followed, have created deep divisions in our society. As a result, we too are in need of healing and settling. I suggest, though, that the solution for us lies less in extending citizenship to those who are currently excluded than in making political citizenship more substantial.

 John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

One way of doing this would be to encourage open debate about key issues. This might be seen as going against Harrington's ideas, in that his popular assembly was not allowed to discuss legislative proposals - he worried that popular political debate would lead to anarchy. Yet he saw debate by the Senate as crucial to the political process, and he did not want to prevent popular debate from taking place outside the popular assembly. Moreover, in several of his writings he expressed the idea that greater knowledge would arise from the debating of issues, even suggesting that his model constitution would be improved by others examining and criticising it. There is an echo here of Milton's notion from Areopagitica that good ideas will inevitably win out if free debate is allowed to flourish. If we could create opportunities at all levels of society for free, open and constructive political debate involving those of different political views, perhaps we could construct a society that is more open, tolerant, and better informed.

 Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Of course, what I have offered here is not a utopia but just three proposals inspired by Oceana. A further distinguishing feature of utopias, noted by Davis, is that they are conceived as total schemes. In the early modern era this was often achieved by setting the utopia on a distant island, as Thomas More did in the work that gave its name to the genre. This reflected a fascination with the, as yet not fully charted nature of the globe at that time. While, like More, Harrington was writing a utopia for England, he indicated the intended location more overtly, the fictional guise he employed simply signalled a concern with England as it ought to be rather than as it actually was. Today, the obvious place to situate a utopia would be in the virtual realm. Moreover, with the right software one might even be able to play out the consequences of such a system, as is done in disaster scenario planning (and as Harrington attempted to do in a more basic form in the corollary to Oceana). Perhaps my next step, after my Harrington book has been delivered to the publisher, should be to construct a Harringtonian 'digitopia'.

 

Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop

earlymodernpoliticalthoughtworkshop.png

As part of my British Academy Fellowship I organised a workshop at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society on Wednesday 16 May 2018, on the relationship between early-modern political thought and twenty-first-century politics. The Lit and Phil is an ideal place to host such a discussion, having been a vibrant centre for thought and learning in the heart of Newcastle for more than 200 years. Although its founders eschewed discussion of religion and politics, its forerunner - the Philosophical Society - debated such issues as 'Whether a National Religion, or a variety of Sects, is of greater advantage to the State?', 'Whether the Civil War in the reign of Charles I and the present conflict with America be similar?' and 'Which is the better form of government, a limited monarchy as in Great Britain, or a republic?' 

I invited four distinguished speakers to the workshop each to speak on a different theme. 

 Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution, talked about political organisation and mobilisation during the Civil War. He focused on the Putney Debates arguing that it was in that forum that some of the arguments deployed ever since for and against democratic change were laid down. Thomas Rainsborough set out his famous plea for the right to representative government and democratic accountability. He argued that: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he' and therefore that 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government' (The Clarke Papers, ed. C. H. Firth, London: Royal Historical Society, 1992, p. 301). Against him General Henry Ireton asserted that only those with property should have the vote. Moreover, as Rees noted, the organisation of those debates themselves hinted towards a more direct notion of democracy, with ordinary soldiers acting as the voices of their regiments. Drawing on his own experiences in opposing the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Rees showed that these arguments retain relevance and resonance today.

 Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ann Hughes, Emeritus Professor of History at Keele University, engaged with the question of religious liberty and toleration. The period of the mid seventeenth-century witnessed the articulation of arguments both for and against toleration. The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards rejected toleration, citing the dangers that full religious liberty would bring. By contrast, in Areopagitica, John Milton celebrated the acceptance and even encouragement of (moderate) division and variety. Hughes highlighted the fact that Edwards and Milton essentially had different conceptions of the truth. Edwards believed that he knew what the truth was and that the task was to enforce it. By contrast, Milton emphasised the need for openness in order to discover the truth. Once again, we can see how these two views remain in conflict among us today with figures on both sides of the secular-religious divide in danger of being closer to Edwards than to Milton.

 Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ariel Hessayon, of Goldsmiths College, discussed environmental issues, noting that while we worry today about global warming and its implications for competition over scarce resources, people in the seventeenth century were anxious about the impact of a cooling climate in what has become known as the 'little ice age'. Building on Geoffrey Parker's important work on this topic, Hessayon considered the sources that seventeenth-century men and women used to make sense of what was going on, and their responses to environmental change and challenge.

 Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Finally, the historian and journalist Gaby Mahlberg opened with Berthold Brecht poem Thoughts on the Duration of Exile in order to address the issue of refugees and exile. She reminded us that exile is generally a matter of necessity rather than choice, and explored the ways in which seventeenth-century English republican exiles were affected by the people and ideas with which they came into contact in the nations that gave them shelter. She also spoke of the difficulties they faced in attempting to maintain and pursue their political activities abroad.

The four papers were linked in my mind by the fact that fear seems to have been a pervasive and constant presence in mid-seventeenth-century England. Ireton was afraid of the social anarchy he thought would inevitably arise from giving the poor and propertyless the vote (while those poor and propertyless were of course endlessly fearful of what the authorities would do to them). Edwards was fearful that tolerating certain religious positions would be a slippery slope that would again result in anarchy. The idea of the religious sects of the time as a canker eating away at society is a powerful image of the intensity of this fear. At the same time, members of those religious sects must have been constantly fearful of repression. Extreme weather events and other natural phenomena then, as now, bred fear as human beings grappled with the question of how to deal with what is beyond their control. Finally, exiles and refugees today, as in the past experience great fear for their lives and prospects, and at the same time have the potential to provoke a fearful reaction in others: their 'otherness' makes them suspect and a threat.

 Frontispiece from the pamphlet  The World Turned Upside Down  (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

It is perhaps not surprising that a period of great change and revolution was marked by fear. Thomas Hobbes commented that he and fear were twins (it was said that his mother went into labour on hearing news of the Spanish Armada) and fear certainly played a central role within his political thought. Similarly the title and frontispiece to the pamphlet The world turned upside down of 1645 reflects the sense of fear and strangeness that seems to have been palpable at the time. Historians typically focus on the changes that were introduced, the debates that were played out, and the ideas that emerged, but perhaps refocusing on the fear would prove fruitful. 

 Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

It is also important to remind ourselves that fear need not always provoke a violent, destructive or exclusive response. On this point I was struck by Ariel Hessayon's comment that Gerrard Winstanley's answer to the climactic problems of the seventeenth-century (and indeed to those of poverty and division too) was in essence peaceful, communal and constructive. He set about planting beans and turnips on St George's Hill in Surrey in a bid by himself and the members of his community to feed themselves.

Speaking of Winstanley brings me back to the poster I produced for the event and the image on it depicting a slightly quirky quartet of figures. Winstanley and Rainsborough are there joined by the nineteenth-century Chartist William Cuffay and the "King of the Hippies" Sid Rawle, under a banner stating 'This Land is your Land' 'Take it'. This mural can be found painted on to an artists' studio at the top end of the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. It would seem that I, and those attending the workshop, are not the only current residents of Newcastle who can see the relevance of seventeenth-century political ideas.

ouseburnmural.jpg

Ouseburn Valley mural with our four speakers: Gaby Mahlberg, Ann Hughes, John Rees and Ariel Hessayon.

You can find another blogpost on this event by Liam Temple, complete with audio recordings of the papers at:http://theosophicaltransactions.com/conference-report-early-modern-political-thought-and-twenty-first-century-politics-16th-may-2018/

Peaceful Revolution?

Several recent commentators on world affairs, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have suggested that what is required to solve current problems is nothing short of a revolution. Despite my sympathy with the need for drastic change, as an historian of the English and French Revolutions I always feel cautious about calls for revolution. Both of the revolutions I have researched provide ample evidence of the horrors that it can bring: the havoc and destruction it wreaks on the country and the devastation it causes to individual lives.

 Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Civil War, which was a key component of the English Revolution, is thought to have resulted, as noted in a previous blogpost, in the deaths of a larger proportion of the adult male population of this country than the First World War. The regicide - effectively a state-sponsored execution - that lay at the Revolution's heart, introduced a period of ten years of unstable government which had serious political and economic consequences. Moreover, the whole period brought division and animosity. Families were divided, with brothers or fathers and sons fighting on different sides. Royalists were excluded from the franchise in both of the constitutions of the 1650s: the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, as well as having their land and assets seized. After 1660 the tables were turned and it was former revolutionaries, especially the regicides, who were punished. Even his early death in 1658 did not protect Oliver Cromwell: his body was dug up in order to be posthumously decapitated. Moreover, the social divisions survived well beyond 1660, with the labels 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' mutating into those of 'Whig' and 'Tory', which dominated British politics throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. 

 'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

The French Revolution has an even greater reputation for violence. This was frequently perpetrated by the crowds. For example, around the time of the storming of the Bastille, the decapitated heads of authority figures were hung from lampposts, and in October 1789 a crowd of women armed with pikes marched to Versailles and forced the royal family back to Paris. Later, in the September Massacres of 1792, over a thousand prisoners were slaughtered to prevent them from joining with foreign troops who were imminently expected to invade Paris (but actually never came). Violence was also perpetrated by the government itself, via the use of the guillotine and by the declaration, in September 1793, that Terror was the 'order of the day'.

Of course, not all English or French revolutionaries insisted that violence and division were essential to achieving their aims. In each case there were prominent individuals who argued strongly against both. James Harrington was one of these. Though he supported the parliamentary cause financially during the 1640s, and argued that England was ripe for popular government in his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, he acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I in 1647-8, having previously worked on behalf of Charles's nephew, the Prince Elector Palatine. In keeping with these connections, Harrington was intent, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on healing and settling a divided nation. To this end he even argued that royalists should be allowed to vote:

 Extract from James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana,  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq.,  ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

Extract from James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq., ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

During the French Revolution calls for clemency were made by members of the Cordeliers Club who, as was demonstrated in my previous blogpost, showed an interest both in Harrington's works and in his understanding of democracy. In particular, Camille Desmoulins in his newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier, condemned Maximilian Robespierre's appeal to revolutionary necessity, which was used to justify the Terror. Against Robespierre's position, Desmoulins asserted the traditional Cordeliers call for the protection and defence of the rights of individuals, insisting that the Cordeliers' fight had been to defend: 'the declaration of rights, the gentleness of republican maxims, fraternity, holy equality, the inviolability of principles'. (Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Belin, 1987, p.80). Freedom of speech and the liberty of the press were particularly important to him as means of protecting the people against tyranny, and as the fundamental foundation of republican government: 'What is the last retrenchment against despotism? It is the liberty of the press ... What is it that distinguishes a republic from a Monarchy? It is a single thing, the liberty of speaking and of writing.' (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 147). Moreover, Desmoulins turned this idea directly against Robespierre's notion - borrowed from Montesquieu - of a republic of virtue:

But to return to the question of the liberty of the press, without doubt it must be unlimited; without doubt republics must have as their base and foundation the liberty of the press, not this other base that Montesquieu has given them. (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 179).

 Camille Desmoulins,  Le Vieux Cordelier , no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Neither Harrington nor Desmoulins proved very successful in their attempts to bring about a more harmonious settlement. Despite his best efforts, Harrington's proposals were not taken up by the government. After the Restoration he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, and he did not publish any further works during his lifetime. Desmoulins suffered even more drastically for his views. He was sent to the guillotine in April 1794 by the man whose ideas he had criticised in Le Vieux Cordelier, his former schoolfriend, Robespierre.

Yet, just because they failed, does not mean that the ideas of Harrington and Desmoulins were not feasible, or that they do not have something useful to teach us. Most historians no longer subscribe to a narrow Whig interpretation of the past, but rather acknowledge that the ideas that did not win out, and even the paths not taken, are worthy of some consideration. Finding political solutions that can unite those of very different political persuasions (as Harrington sought to do) is an appealing idea at a time when politics is more divisive and combative than ever. And the notion that freedom of speech and a free press should form the foundation of the political system is widely respected, if not always enacted, today. Moreover, these two ideas are combined in an interesting initiative that has been gaining some traction. Advocates and practitioners of local participatory democracy have shown that allowing groups of interested parties openly to discuss and debate issues often leads to greater consensus. Applying this kind of local participatory democracy more widely could perhaps offer a solution to the current democratic crisis.

No doubt part of the appeal of Harrington's ideas to Desmoulins and his fellow Cordeliers was his attempt to combine a commitment to innovative and revolutionary ideas - not least democratic government - with a concern to heal divisions and to build a society that was open to a range of viewpoints as well as being harmonious. And I am aware that my own interest in both Harrington and Desmoulins stems partly from the same desire. For me, these thinkers offer the possibility that we may be able to bring about positive and lasting change to our society, including its political institutions, without recourse to revolutionary violence or even to the silencing of 'inconvenient' views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Advantages and Pitfalls of Referenda

Referenda have recently been in the news, with questions raised about their role in democracy. There is a tendency for their results to be treated as representing the will of the people, even when the outcome has been very close, as with the UK referendum on Brexit. There are also questions about who has the authority to call a referendum, as illustrated by events in Catalonia. In addition, there may be issues about the administration of referenda, for instance about the wording of the question to which an electorate is to respond, as was the case with the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum: the wording proposed by the Scottish National Party was judged by the Electoral Commission as likely to lead people to vote 'Yes'.

The use of referenda to decide political issues is not new, of course. As I argued in my previous blogpost, Harrington had insisted that the people had a right to the final say over whether legislative proposals were to be implemented. Indeed for him this was the crucial role of the people within the political system. Yet he did not accompany his call for popular initiative by advocating referenda. Instead he insisted that the popular acceptance or rejection of legislation should be delegated to a popular assembly.

 A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

 The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The provision of regular referenda was, however, appended to Harrington's constitutional model during the French Revolution by members of the Cordeliers Club. Jean-Jacques Rutledge first expressed his interest in Harrington in the 1780s. He urged the French to read Harrington's works since they provided a model by which legislators might 'raise the Edifice of the most equal and the most durable democratic constitution'. (Calypso ou les Babillards, Paris, 1785, p. 221.) Following the outbreak of revolution, Rutledge joined the Cordeliers where he found like-minded friends who shared his interest in democracy. 

In the early 1790s several Cordeliers called for the popular sanctioning of laws by means of regular referenda. As François Robert, who was club president during 1791, explained:

there is nothing easier than to make French citizens take part in the making of the         law, as they take part in the nomination of their representatives, and if they once         take part in making the laws, they are free, and France is happily transformed into a     republic. (François Robert, Républicanisme adapté à la France, Paris, 1790, p. 88.)

Another Cordelier, Louis De La Vicomterie, deemed as the first 'power' of the people: 'Ratification by them of projects of law given to them'. (Louis De La Vicomterie, Des Droits du peuple sur l'assemblée nationale, Paris 1791, p. 177.) The most detailed call for the popular ratification of laws was set out in a speech to the club by René Girardin, the executor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's will. That speech was endorsed by the club and published as a pamphlet. Girardin not only insisted on the benefits of the popular ratification of laws, but also offered a detailed proposal for how it could be implemented, by way of popular referenda organised at a local level. If this were enacted, Girardin insisted: 'each citizen without altering their condition, can take part personally in the law' and each law 'will be ratified by the people in person' consequently 'the law will be known by all' and 'truly sacred, respectable and respected by all, because it will be the work of all'. (René Girardin, Discours sur la nécessité de la ratification de la loi, par la volonté générale, Paris, 1791, p. 23.) 

 A French translation of  The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works . Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A year later, following the establishment of the French Republic, a draft constitution was submitted to the National Convention on behalf of its author Rutledge. It bore a striking resemblance to Harrington's Oceana. Yet, it departed from that model on certain key points, one of which was the process for ratifying laws. Whereas in Oceana the whole legislative process was carried out at the national level, with the senate debating and putting forward legislative proposals and the popular assembly voting to accept or reject each one, Rutledge's constitution followed Girardin's model. The National Legislative Council had the task of debating the issues and putting forward proposals, but those proposals would then be accepted or rejected by the people gathered in their primary assemblies:

Final Ratification or sanction of the law, first proposed, then discussed and finally presented by the great national legislative council, belongs exclusively to the nation [represented legally in their local assemblies] where this sanction must be expressed on the presentation of the laws discussed, by yes for the affirmative, and by no, for the negative. (Idées sur l'espèce de gouvernement populaire, Paris, 1792, p. 23.)

 Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Not all revolutionaries embraced this idea. Jacques-Pierre Brissot, attacked both Camille Desmoulins and La Vicomterie for calling for the popular ratification of laws. Brissot described Desmoulins as carrying the sovereignty of the people to an extreme by wishing 'to make them ratify all the acts of the legislative power' and he accused La Vicomterie of advocating a confused and dangerous system: 'This ardent apostle of the people does not know that according to his system he is its most cruel enemy. Because if there is a means of having neither law, nor liberty, it is by wishing to have all the laws ratified by the six thousand primary assemblies'. (Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, Le Patriote français, nos, 586 and 670.) 

Brissot was not, however, an opponent of referenda per se. Indeed, he insisted that popular ratification of the constitution was crucial. But he drew a clear distinction between constitutive and legislative power, suggesting that only the former needed to be subject to a popular referendum. One of his objections was to do with the practical inconveniences of holding frequent referenda. 

Recent advances in technology have the potential to make regular referenda a less cumbersome activity (though issues around access to technology and rendering the system resistant to corruption remain). While I would hesitate to propose the popular ratification of laws by the entire citizen body, there does seem to be some value in discussing such ideas. They are, after all, one means of engaging citizens more directly with the political process and thereby overcoming the problems associated with the perception that politics in the UK is currently the preserve of an entrenched political elite.

 

Popular Initiative in a Parliamentary System

The internet has already started to transform our democracy. For instance, websites like change.org, which claims to be the world's largest petition platform, allow members of the general public to mount campaigns, generate - or express - support for particular proposals, and initiate political debate.

Some years ago I signed a petition on change.org which asked the Health Secretary to lower the screening age for bowel cancer to 50 - I had just lost my husband (aged 54) to that devastating disease. Since then I have keenly observed the progression of this issue through the labyrinthine passages of the UK parliamentary system, coming to respect the persistence and tenacity of Lauren Backler, who initiated the petition following the death of her mother to bowel cancer aged just 55. This is a good example of an initiative for the wider public good that was born of individual pain and suffering, and facilitated by this type of website.

Yet there are, of course, problems with online petitioning platforms. Issues are rarely clear cut and open to simple solutions. Even in the case of lowering the screening age for bowel cancer, it is necessary to weigh up the potential benefits, in lives saved, against the costs. These include not just the financial costs of screening more people and providing treatment to those who are diagnosed, but also the cost of the anxiety generated by screening and by the higher number of diagnoses it inevitably brings. Moreover, given the open nature of the website, not all change.org petitions are necessarily wise, properly informed, or in the wider public interest. Finally, one might wonder about the business model of change.org itself which is, after all, a for-profit company.

 'A True Copy of the Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', reprinted from the LSE Digital Library, class mark R(SR) 11/L23, under a Creative Commons License.

'A True Copy of the Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', reprinted from the LSE Digital Library, class mark R(SR) 11/L23, under a Creative Commons License.

Petitions were also a common feature of seventeenth-century political life, especially during the period of the English Revolution. Like those of today, they varied greatly in focus and scope. Some were drawn up by an individual or small group of people and focused on a very specific case. James Harrington's sisters petitioned the authorities on his behalf in February 1662 asking that they and their tenants be allowed access to their brother who was then being held in the Tower of London.

Petitions could also be drawn up on behalf of particular interest groups. The 'Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', which was presented to the Commons on 4 February 1642, for example, expressed the fears of these London-based women about the presence of 'popish lords' in Parliament and the continuing performance of the Catholic mass at court. These women proved particularly adept at exploiting their 'frail condition' and their position as wives and mothers as grounds for their intervention in politics, justifying their call for action against the Irish Rebellion with reference to their fear that they would be raped or their children massacred.

Some also used petitions to advance their own political ideas. Harrington and his friends produced The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons, which was delivered to Parliament on 6 July 1659, and which called for a new constitution to be established modelled on Harrington's ideas. The Levellers, too, made much use of petitioning, setting up networks to facilitate the collection of signatures and subscriptions, and submitting at least one petition that boasted almost ten thousand names.

 'The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons',  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

'The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons', The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

When Harrington drafted his model constitution in The Commonwealth of Oceana he decided that a more formal mechanism for popular initiative would be beneficial, going beyond petitioning. Not only did he propose the establishment of a Council of Prytans 'to whom it was lawful for any man to offer anything in order to the fabric of the commonwealth' before the constitution was finalised (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. 79), he also instituted within his model a body known as the Academy of Provosts which was to operate as a regular and permanent means by which members of the public could make legislative proposals.

 
 Extract from 'The Commonwealth of Oceana',  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington.  Private copy.

Extract from 'The Commonwealth of Oceana', The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington. Private copy.

Harrington set out his idea for an Academy of Provosts in the nineteenth order of the model of the commonwealth of Oceana, which dealt with the work of the four governing councils that were devoted to matters of state, war, religion and trade respectively. Each week three provosts would be chosen from each council to service the Academy of Provosts for that week. Since members of the council were chosen from the senate, these were men of considerable political experience and expertise. This academy was to assemble every evening in a pleasant room. All sorts of people could join the provosts for conversation on matters of government, news or intelligence, or to propose new ideas to the councils. Anything proposed would be discussed by the assembled group, unless it required secrecy - in which case it could be presented to one or more of the provosts in a separate room. Provision was also made that if a someone had advice to give 'for the good of the commonwealth', but was unable or unwilling to come in person to the Academy,  a letter could be left with the doorkeeper for the attention of the provosts. Any ideas brought to the Academy by these means that were deemed by two or more provosts to be potentially useful to the commonwealth could then be proposed by them to the appropriate council. If the council saw fit it could propose the idea to the senate, which would then be required to debate the issue. This institution ensured, Harrington explained, that 'the ear of the commonwealth be open unto all' (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, p. 128). It was important to Harrington that the provosts governed and organised the academy in such a way 'as may be most attractive unto men of parts and good affections unto the commonwealth, for the excellency of the conversation'. Harrington was evidently pleased with his idea since he repeated it in later works that contained abridged versions of his model including Brief Directions, The Art of Lawgiving and The Rota, and he endorsed the principle behind it in Aphorisms Political, insisting: 'It is not below the dignity of the greatest assembly, but according to the practice of the best commonwealths, to admit of any man that is able to propose to them for the good of his country.' (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, p. 522.)

One cannot really imagine an 'Academy of Provosts' being established at Westminster today, but a twenty-first century equivalent could adopt a virtual rather than an actual form. At the very least, Harrington's Academy of Provosts, reminds us that the internet need not simply recreate forms of popular initiative, like petitioning, that were already in existence before the digital age. Rather, just as Harrington did in his Oceana, it might be worth inventing new forms more appropriate to our political circumstances that could be made possible by advances in technology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holding Representatives to Account

Concerns about the accountability of members of the UK Parliament have been common in recent years. These have centred, for instance, on the expenses scandal - with claims being made that had little or nothing to do with parliamentary work. This originally broke in 2009, but continues to rumble on. Thus, in October 2017 it was revealed that sixteen peers who had not spoken at all in 2016-17 had nonetheless claimed a total of more than £400,000 in tax-free expenses over that period. Members of Parliament have also been accused of being unaccountable in appearing to challenge, or ignore, the will of the people - for example over Brexit. The reluctant response of some MPs to the referendum - reflected most recently in the voting of an amendment on 13 December 2017 which will give Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal - has led some to accuse MPs of inhibiting the popular will. However, the accountability of those in power is by no means a new issue.

 Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from  A Collection of Emblemes  (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from A Collection of Emblemes (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Having been prompted into rebellion by the actions of an unaccountable monarch, who had ruled for an unprecedented eleven years without calling Parliament, the English revolutionaries of the mid-seventeenth century were particularly concerned with the issue of accountability. Some, such as the parliamentary propagandist Henry Parker, insisted that a parliament would, by its very nature, embody the wisdom of the nation and so could not betray the interests of the people, (Henry Parker, Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses, London, 1642, especially p. 22). But, by the mid-1640s, a number of commentators were becoming concerned about the accountability of Parliament itself. The Puritan poet George Wither addressed this issue directly in his Letters of Advice: Touching The Choice of Knights and Burgesses of November 1644. According to Wither, the Houses of Parliament had resolved to call 'false and apostate' members to just account and to disable them from returning to parliamentary trust, so fresh elections were expected. Wither's aim in the work was to advise the knights and burgesses on the kinds of men to choose. In doing so he expressed specific concerns about MPs being unaccountable and therefore becoming distanced from their constituents:

by heedlesnesse in this dutie, they shall make Tyrants and Fooles, Lords over them, who will fawne and court them, till they are elected, and then, scorne and trample them under feet, putting such an immeasurable distance, betwixt themselves and others, of that Body whom they represent, and out of which they were chosen, as if they had forgotten what they were (George Wither, Letters of Advice: Touching the Choice of Knights and Burgesses, 1644, p. 4).

Not surprisingly, fears about lack of accountability only seem to have increased after the regicide enacted by a purged 'Rump' Parliament.

   Those concerned with accountability had various ideas as to how the problem could best be addressed. A common solution was to call for regular elections, as the Levellers did in The Agreement of the People. They insisted that 'to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority' the Parliament that was then sitting should be dissolved on 30 September 1648 and a new Parliament elected every two years. (The Agreement of the People, clauses II and III). Others worried that the mere threat of not being re-elected would not be sufficient to ensure the good behaviour of those in power and so called for those stepping down from office to be required to give a public account of their actions on the basis of which they could then be judged, and if necessary punished. Wither advocated precisely this measure in the postscript to Letters of Advice. He described MPs as: 'servants and inferiours to their respective Counties and Burroughts; and that, by them, they may be called to account, for every omission or commission worthie questioning: either before the present Parliament whereof they are members, or before the next that shall be summoned.' (Wither, Letters of Advice, p. 13). He even toyed with the idea of dismissing those who proved to be 'unfaithful in trust' mid-term. (p. 14). De-selection no less.

 John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

   Not all seventeenth-century political commentators, however, believed that such accountability measures were an unalloyed good. Some acknowledged that there was a tension between making rulers accountable (especially by means of frequent elections) and the need for them to develop experience and expertise. John Milton in The Readie and Easie Way, a last-ditch attempt in 1660 to avoid the restoration of the monarchy, questioned the idea of limited terms of office: 'For it appeers not how this can be don, without danger and mischance of putting out a great number of the best and ablest: in whose stead new elections may bring in as many raw, unexperienc'd and otherwise affected, to the weakning and much alterning for the wors of public transactions.' (John Milton, Selected Prose, Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 341). Similarly, the Calvinist minister Richard Baxter argued that: 'To have the ignorant and unexercised introduced, and then turned out before they can grow wise' was not a sensible means of operating. (Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth, ed. William Lamont, Cambridge, 1994, p. 140 )

 Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

 Both Milton and Baxter were responding directly to Harrington's concern with accountability and his distinctive proposals for how this might be secured. Harrington insisted that members of both legislative houses, along with most office holders within the commonwealth, should hold their positions for a period of three years after which they would be required to spend an equivalent period out of office. Elections, though, would occur annually, with one third of the members of each assembly being replaced each year. This system had some advantages. Not only did it mean that there would be no hiatus between the ending of one parliament and the opening of the next, but it also meant that at any time the assemblies would be composed of one third of members with two years' experience who could speak as experts, one third who were in the process of developing their expertise, and one third who would bring new ideas and approaches to national government.

Harrington, and many of his contemporaries, would have identified severe problems with our modern parliamentary system as regards accountability. Holding elections just once every five years would have seemed foolish and dangerous to many of them. Moreover, the idea that at the end of a given parliament the same MPs could immediately be re-elected, without any official scrutiny of their conduct, would certainly have been condemned by Wither and Harrington. They would have derided the fact that it is possible for an MP to sit for more than 40 years without any time out of office - as the 'father of the house' Tam Dalyell did. While it is necessary to balance accountability against the benefits derived from experience, a major problem with our system, as Harrington would have recognised, is that because they are not forced to spend time out of office, members of Parliament can quickly become separated from the interests and concerns of the general public. Moreover, their ability to make laws means that they can prescribe different rules for themselves than for the rest of the population. They do not, as Harrington would have put it, have to live under the laws that they make. Perhaps a move to a system in which there are more frequent elections (perhaps on a rotational basis), with the requirement of regular terms out of office, would increase their accountability?

 

What is Democracy?

Happy New Year! The first day of 2018 seemed a good day to post a blog that looks both backwards and forwards on a key topic of the moment: democracy. The concept of democracy is simultaneously central to our current political culture and at the same time the subject of debate. In a previous blogpost I noted Harrington's distinctive understanding of democracy and suggested that his thinking on this subject might provide some interesting answers to our current democratic crisis. I want to build on this suggestion in my next few posts by exploring three mechanisms that were proposed by Harrington, or his followers, which could be used to breathe new life into our democracy. As a preface to those explorations, this post will offer a brief history of the concept of democracy, focusing in particular on how it was understood in the seventeenth century.

 Benjamin Constant, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Constant, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Democracy is a complex concept with a long and convoluted history. Today, of course, it is almost universally praised, but this was often not the case before the twentieth century. Its origins lie in ancient Greece, especially Athens. Yet not only was it much criticised at that time (not least by the two most renowned philosophers of the day, Plato and Aristotle), but the form democracy then took was very different from the political structures and values to which the term is applied today. These differences were emphasised by Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century. He drew a distinction between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. The first, which he described as involving the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community, involved the direct exercise of collective political power through: deliberation; the voting of laws; and the calling to account of magistrates. The second, by contrast, prioritises the rights of the individual. It encompasses: the right to freedom of speech, movement, association, religion and employment; the right to be governed by the rule of law and to dispose of one's property as one sees fit; and, in political terms, it requires simply 'the right to exercise some influence on the administration of government' whether by electing some or all officials, or via representations, petitions and demands. Constant's 'liberty of the moderns', then, is precisely what democracy in its modern guise is designed to protect, and the origins of this modern form of democracy are usually traced back to Constant's own time, and in particular, to the revolutions and reforms of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet democracy was also much discussed in the seventeenth century, not least in England during the mid-century Revolution, and there are grounds for tracing the origins of our modern understanding of the concept right back to that point. 

 John Whitgift by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, NPG660. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Whitgift by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, NPG660. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

The term 'democratical' was first used in print in English in 1574: in a work published by the future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, which responded to Puritan calls for further purification of the Church of England. Within this dispute the question was raised as to whether church and state government should take the same form. Whitgift's opponent, Thomas Cartwright, argued that the government of the state should be fitted to that of the church, a suggestion that Whitgift interpreted as suggesting 'that the government of the commonwealth, ought not to be monarchical, but either democratical or aristocratical, because (as you say) the government of the Church ought to be such'. (John Whitgift, The defense of the aunswere to the Admonition against the replie of T. C., London, 1574, p. 389). The term was also invoked in another religious debate, this time originating in the 1580s, concerning the method of election within the early church and its implications for the present.

 Thomas Cartwright by an unknown artist, 1683. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D20948. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Thomas Cartwright by an unknown artist, 1683. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D20948. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Most of the references to democratic government in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries related to these debates, and they were relatively few in number. Moreover, at this time democracy was usually portrayed in negative terms. Between 1570 and 1600 fewer than ten works appeared each decade that included the word 'democratical'. By the 1640s, however, more than 100 works did so. Part of the reason for the increasing popularity of the term relates to the political upheavals of those years. Indeed, some commentators even began to use the term 'democracy' to describe the government of England itself. Initially democracy was simply used to designate one element of England's mixed constitution but, following the regicide, England was presented in several works as a pure democracy. Not only that, but some commentators actively embraced this idea. In a sermon preached before the Lord Mayor, aldermen, sheriffs and companies of London in October 1650, Nathanael Homes sought to distinguish a 'popular parity; a levelling Anarchie' from 'a regular Democracie'. The latter, he insisted, 'assisted with an occasional Aristocracie in Trust, is most safe; as some experience may be seen, in Switzerland, Venice, Low-countries, and New-England; and most anciently among the Jews, in the time of the Judges'. (Nathanael Homes, A sermon, preached before the Right Honourable..., London, 1650, p. 32). 

 Title page to  The Prerogative of Popular Government  from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Title page to The Prerogative of Popular Government from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

James Harrington too sought to rehabilitate the concept of democracy on the basis of exactly the same distinction, but he went further, seeking at the same time to distance the concept of democracy from ancient Athens and the emphasis on free speech and debate among the citizenry that was central to government in that city. The so-called 'democracy' of Athens was, in Harrington's eyes, really anarchy because it allowed debate among the citizens, which tended to produce chaos. In contrast to this he celebrated what he described as the 'democracy' of Sparta which was instead grounded in popular sovereignty, which he understood as the right to accept or reject legislative proposals. In Oceana Harrington made the case for Sparta as a democracy on the grounds that in that system the senate was elected and the popular assembly had the right of veto over the propositions of the senate. In his subsequent work The Prerogative of Popular Government he repeated this point and offered further justification for the superiority of Spartan 'democracy' over Athenian 'anarchy': 'debate in the people maketh anarchy, and where they have the result and no more, the rest being managed by a good aristocracy, it maketh that which is properly and truly to be called democracy, or popular government'. (James Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 308). In my last blogpost I noted how different the composition of Harrington's senate was both from other second chambers at the time and from the House of Lords today, and here we can see that Harrington's senate was also distinguished by its distinctive function. The role of the senate was to debate and propose legislation, but it was for the popular assembly to accept or reject those proposals.

 Title page to second book of  The Prerogative of Popular Government  from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Title page to second book of The Prerogative of Popular Government from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this very brief account of seventeenth-century democracy. First, discussions of democracy originally arose not in the realm of politics narrowly defined, but rather with reference to religion and the relationship between church and state. Indeed this was still true of Harrington, who made much of the practice of democracy within the Hebrew commonwealth (as depicted in the Old Testament) and in the early church (as described in the New). Modern democracy, then, should not simply be seen as a secular concept, but one with firm religious foundations. Secondly, the history of democracy in the seventeenth century is a good example of a common tendency by which political concepts enter the lexicon as terms of abuse, but once there are available for adaptation, and even more positive adoption, by individuals or groups. Consequently, a proper understanding of the origins of political concepts must take into account not just positive depictions of them, but also negative ones. Moreover, both the initial negative understanding of democracy, and the relative flexibility of the concept in the seventeenth century, render exploration of that phase of its development of particular relevance today. The negative accounts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century thinkers can help us to identify and analyse some of the potential problems of democracy. At the same time, the flexibility of the concept - before it became inextricably intertwined with voting, elections and majority rule - might provide us with interesting hints at the paths not taken, alternative ways of thinking about democracy, and even potential solutions to current political problems.

This leads us back to Harrington. In one sense we might posit Harrington's analysis in Oceana and The Prerogative of Popular Government as marking the birth of modern democracy in enacting the shift away from its ancient Athenian form - where the emphasis was on political debate and direct political action - and towards a version grounded in popular sovereignty exercised via a representative assembly. Yet, at the same time, Harrington's constitutional model sets out a politics that is very different from our own democratic system. And while we might not want to adopt his idea that the popular assembly cannot debate, but only silently accept or reject legislative proposals, his appreciation of the fact that modern democracy raises the danger of rule by an entrenched political elite, and his proposals as to how that can be avoided, may well provide a stimulus to productive political thought in the twenty-first century.

 

House of Lords Reform Seventeenth-Century Style

 House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

In late October, several newspapers reported new proposals for reform of the House of Lords. It was suggested that its membership be cut to 600; that peers be limited to fifteen-year terms; and that future appointments be made not by the government but by all political parties, according to their average share of the vote at the previous election. These proposals are the outcome of ten months of investigation by a committee headed by Lord Terence Burns. For those unhappy with the patently unrepresentative nature of the upper house, the proposals of this committee are likely to be a disappointment. The fact that the reduction to 600 members will not be realised until 2027, and that more drastic change (such as abandoning the hereditary element altogether) is not being proposed, makes the committee look timid. As so often in the face of frustration at contemporary political issues, I am led to reflect on what might be learnt from paying more attention to the debates of the seventeenth century.

The purpose, function and constitution of the second chamber was a major issue during the period of the English Revolution. In the space of less than two decades (from 1640 to 1659) a variety of models were not only proposed and debated, but even enacted. Early seventeenth-century accounts presented the House of Lords as a key component of England's mixed constitution. It provided an institutional setting for the aristocratic element, alongside the King (who embodied the monarchical element), and the Commons (which represented the democratic). However, the composition of the upper house (and therefore what was meant by the term 'aristocracy'), and even its very existence, came up for debate during the Revolution.

 Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The House of Lords had already become a source of some concern even before the outbreak of civil war in 1642, due to the inclusion of bishops among its voting members. Many Puritans opposed episcopacy (the rule of bishops within the church) and they were especially concerned about their ability to wield political power. The Bishops' Exclusion Bill, which was passed on 13 February 1642, removed them from the House of Lords, thereby reducing the political power of the established church. Bishops only returned to the Lords as a result of the Clergy Act of 1661.

 Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By 1649 the House of Lords as an institution was under attack. The Lords was seen as the natural supporter of monarchy and so it was feared that its members would favour a settlement with the defeated king on his terms. Consequently, after the purging of the Commons to remove those MPs thought to be sympathetic to a settlement, the remaining MPs declared the Commons to be supreme, insisting that it would, henceforth, rule without the House of Lords. The purged Commons then initiated the King's trial, which ended in regicide. It also held onto power in the aftermath of that seismic event. Between January 1649 and April 1653 England was ruled by a unicameral system in which power was concentrated in the 'Rump' of the old Parliament (those MPs who remained after the purge), without any second chamber or single figurehead.

The rule of the Rump Parliament was short-lived. It was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell in April 1653, but this did not prompt the return of a second chamber. The Rump was replaced by the short-lived Nominated Assembly or Barebones Parliament, which was also a unicameral body. It was in turn replaced, in December 1653, by the Protectorate, governed according to the Instrument of Government (the first written constitution in English history), which declared that a single chamber parliament would rule alongside the Protector and his Council of State. It was during the early phase of the Protectorate that the absence of a second chamber to rein in or check the power of the Commons started to be seen as a weakness. Consequently, when a revised constitution, the Humble Petition and Advice, was drawn up in 1657 one of the main changes imposed was that the parliament was to be bicameral. The new second chamber was not, however, to be a House of Lords on the old model. Known simply as the 'Other House' it was a small body consisting of between 40 and 70 life members who were nominated by Cromwell as Lord Protector, subject to approval by the Commons.            

 'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting.  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting. The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Writing in the midst of this debate and experimentation surrounding the upper chamber, it is perhaps not surprising that James Harrington voiced strong views on this element of the constitution. In The Commonwealth of Oceana, which was published in 1656 when the weaknesses of the Instrument of Government were most acute, Harrington explicitly insisted on the need for a bicameral system to balance and control the power of the lower house, and he set out very clearly both the composition of the second chamber and the role that it was to play. Harrington argued that the second chamber, or senate as he called it, should be composed of a natural aristocracy. This has led some commentators to view him as a supporter of privilege, but his conception was far removed from a traditional aristocracy. Indeed, the membership of his senate was more democratic not just than other second chamber models of the time, but also than our current House of Lords. In the first place, though he used the term 'aristocracy', birth was to play no part in the choice of senators, since there were to be no hereditary peers. Instead, members of the senate were to be chosen on the basis of wealth and merit. While the criterion of wealth might appear exclusive, the basis on which Harrington justified and applied it was remarkably inclusive. The wealth criterion was justified partly on the grounds that money was necessary in order to engage in the study and travel required for the acquisition of political wisdom. Moreover, the threshold was set extremely low by the standards of the time. Senators were simply required to have an annual income of £100 in land, goods or money. Given that, under the Instrument of Government, the property qualification just for voting in parliamentary elections was set at £200 per annum, Harrington's provision is very generous. In addition, by instituting an agrarian law that was designed to ensure a wide distribution of landed property, and by not relying on property in land alone, Harrington's plan would open the door to social mobility. Nor was wealth to be the only criterion, since to become a member of the senate one also had to be chosen by the people who were to judge potential candidates on the basis of merit alone. Finally, Harrington sought to prevent the senate from becoming an entrenched élite by firmly rejecting the idea that senators should sit for life and instead making them subject to rotation of office, so that each senator would serve for a period of just three years, and at the end of each term would have to spend an equivalent term out of office before becoming eligible for re-election.

It is testimony to Harrington's radicalism that these proposals go far beyond those of the Burns committee today. Imposing an agrarian law might be a step too far, but electing the members of the upper house according to merit and subjecting them to rotation of office would go some way towards removing the appearance of an entrenched political elite.

 

Republics v Monarchies

The Scottish National Party recently brought the question of the Monarchy back onto the political agenda by voting at their 2017 party conference in favour of cutting public funding for the Royal Family. Delegates supported overwhelmingly a motion calling for the repeal of the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. While the vote will not bring immediate political change, since Westminster retains control of the Sovereign Grant, the vote has drawn attention once again to the alleged republicanism at the heart of the SNP and the idea that an independent Scotland might choose to replace the Queen as head of state. Such suggestions always produce strong views on both sides, usually labelled 'republican' and 'monarchist'.

On the surface, at least, the distinction between republics and monarchies is a crucial feature of our modern political landscape. Yet the history of these two constitutional forms is far more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. Indeed, according to one historical definition, Britain is and has long been a republic, whereas on the basis of another neither France nor the United States of America is worthy of that term. Monarchists and republicans alike might, therefore, benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of these political concepts.

 Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

The concept of republican government, in both theory and practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome. It was explored in a number of Roman texts, not least those of Marcus Tullius Cicero who was both a politician and a political thinker. In his De re publica Cicero did not define a republic or commonwealth in opposition to kingship, but instead argued 'that a commonwealth (that is the concern of the people) then truly exists when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole'. (Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. James. E. G. Zetzel Cambridge, 1999,  p. 59). The key distinction here, then, is between rule that serves the public interest and that which serves private interests. So, on Cicero's account, a monarchy, if properly organised and directed towards the public good, could be a kind of republic. That same idea was still being voiced as late as the mid-eighteenth century, when the Genevan-born political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract:

I therefore call Republic any State ruled by laws, whatever be the form of administration: for then the public interest alone governs, and the public thing counts for something. Every legitimate government is republican.

The accompanying footnote might appear self-contradictory, if Cicero's position is not borne in mind:

 Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By this word I understand not only an Aristocracy or a Democracy, but in general any government guided by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the Government must be not confused with the Sovereign, but be its minister. Then monarchy itself is a republic. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67)

   But while the Ciceronian understanding of a republic survived well into the eighteenth century, from the late fifteenth century onwards a second understanding was developing. This saw monarchy not as one form of republican government, but as its direct opposite. Several historians have recently traced the development of this tradition of republican thought, emphasising its debt to the writings of Italian Renaissance thinkers as well as to a tradition of Jewish Biblical scholarship that offered a distinctive take on the Israelites' plea to God in I Samuel 8 that they be given a king like other nations.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were certainly those who saw republican government as requiring the destruction of monarchy. The English Civil War of the 1640s prompted some parliamentarians to attack not simply Charles I, or even just tyrants, but all kings. Marchamont Nedham was one of several figures who challenged the very distinction between kings and tyrants: 'Had they [the English] but once tasted the sweets of peace and liberty both together, they would soon be of the opinion of Herodotus and Demosthenes that there is no difference between king and tyrant and become as zealous as the ancient Romans were in defence of their freedom.' (Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, ed. Philip A. Knachel, Charlottesville, 1969, pp. 127-8). This view had practical import too. The 'Act Abolishing the Office of King', which was passed on 17 March 1649, declared the office of king to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people' and the ensuing 'Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State', which was passed in May 1649, insisted that this government was to be 'without any King or House of Lords'.

 John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Yet even this does not present the full complexity of the concept, since those who agreed that republicanism was, by definition, anti-monarchical, could nevertheless disagree over precisely what institutional form should replace the office of king. Most significant was the distinction between those who insisted merely on the absence of a monarch, and those who outlawed any form of single-person rule. Thus a third definition of republic required that the government was not headed by a single figure, but by a group or council. As John Milton asserted in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth: 'I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had.' (John Milton, The Readie and Easy Way, in Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Parties, Harmondsworth, p. 338). Milton's formulation ruled out both monarchy (as in the reign of Charles I) and a Protectorate (as under Oliver Cromwell).

Moreover, the English revolutionaries had attempted to institute such a form a decade earlier. When Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 he was replaced not by another single person, but rather by the Rump Parliament, which ruled together with its Council of State, until April 1653. Yet as its short life - and the rise of Oliver Cromwell - would suggest, experiments involving a purely conciliar government have often proved unsuccessful in practice. The experiments in France in the 1790s with the Committee of Public Safety, and later the Directory, further confirmed this conclusion.

Evidently, it is the second definition of a republic outlined above that is most common today, so that a republican wishes to abolish the Monarchy. According to the first definition, that of Cicero, modern Britain could, despite having a Queen as head of state, be counted as a republic so long as government decisions were made in the public interest. Indeed, there were those in the eighteenth century who made precisely that argument. In 1700, the controversial political thinker and activist John Toland declared that 'if a Commonwealth be a Government of Laws enacted for the Common good of all the People' and if they had some means to consent to those laws 'Then it is undeniably manifest that the English Government is already a Commonwealth, the most free and best constituted in all the world.' (John Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. vii-viii). According to the third definition, by contrast, which requires that a single person must not be given considerable power, neither France nor the United States of America (both of which have a President), would be deemed worthy of that label.

Viewed historically, 'monarchy', is no easier to define than 'republic'. We can see this if we consider precisely what features make a monarch. Hereditary rule might be thought of as one key element, but this does not hold in the case of the early-modern Polish monarchy, which was elective. We might, then, say that a monarch generally holds his or her position for life. This would work for the Polish system, but it was also true of the Doge of Venice during the same period, and yet most people would argue that the Doge was the head of a republic rather than being a monarch.  Instead of thinking about the nature of the position, then, we might consider the extent of the power wielded. But this seems no more satisfactory as a basis for distinguishing monarchies from republics, since from the late eighteenth century to the present the President of the United States of America has tended to wield far greater powers than the English monarch. While part of the problem here is that the modern British Monarchy is in some ways a misnomer, since our Queen is a hereditary figurehead rather than a power-wielding head of government, even in the late eighteenth century George Washington already enjoyed greater powers in certain respects than George III. (For an interesting exploration of the royal tendencies in the American system see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014).

 John Lilburne,  England's New Chains Discovered,  London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

John Lilburne, England's New Chains Discovered, London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This is not to say that important differences between what are conventionally labelled as monarchies and republics do not exist. The expenditure of public money on the Royal Family and the upkeep of royal palaces has always been one of the stronger arguments in the British republican arsenal (though of course presidential systems and legislative assemblies also incur costs). But we must also be careful not to assume that all our political problems can be solved by establishing a republic. It did not take long even for those seventeenth-century English revolutionaries who had called for an end to the monarchy to realise that many problems remained in its wake. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fact that, less than a month after the regicide, the Leveller leader John Lilburne published a pamphlet which he entitled England's New Chains Discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pound coins, farthings and 'Haringtons'

 Old £1 coins. Image Rachel Hammersley.

Old £1 coins. Image Rachel Hammersley.

At midnight on 15 October 2017, the old rounded version of the £1 coin will cease to be legal tender, being replaced by the 12-sided alternative, which has been in circulation since 28 March. The main reason for this replacement is security. An official website describes the new £1 coin as 'The most secure coin in the world' due to various security features which make it difficult to counterfeit. Though the nature of coinage and the organisation of the monetary system has changed dramatically since the seventeenth century, the government then also had to provide coinage that was fit for purpose and fought an almost constant battle against counterfeiting. While coinage was not discussed directly in Harrington's constitutional model, one of his critics used the analogy between minting coins and establishing a commonwealth as the basis for a satirical attack:

 New £1 coins. Image Rachel Hammersley.

New £1 coins. Image Rachel Hammersley.

That then Mr. Harrington for his rare invention and extraordinary good service in minting a          New Commonwealth, shall have the monopoly of coining all new Harringtons, alias brass farthings, which shall henceforth pass for the onely coin of his new copper Commonwealth, Gold and silver (which are Royal mines & metals annexed to the Imperial Crown of the Realm) being as inconsistent with his New Commonwealth, (which hath swallowed them all up) as Kingship, and therefore to be banished with it. (William Prynne, An Answer to a proposition in order to the proposing of a Commonwealth or democracy, London, 1659, p. 5).

 William Prynne by Wenceslaus Hollar, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D26981. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

William Prynne by Wenceslaus Hollar, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D26981. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

The author of this passage was the Puritan William Prynne. He was responding directly to a work published by Harrington's friends in June 1659 and entitled: A Proposition in order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth or Democracy, which had called for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to consider whether Harrington’s proposals might be implemented. Prynne argued that before such a committee be appointed the MPs who had been excluded at Pride’s Purge in December 1648 (because they were felt to be too sympathetic to the King) should be readmitted to the House of Commons. The quote depicts what should happen if Harrington and his friends succeeded in convincing the committee. If they did not, then Prynne's proposal was more sinister. He suggested that they should attend the committee ‘with Ropes about their necks’ so that if their proposal was rejected they could be taken immediately to Tyburn to be hanged. The purpose of this negative outcome is clear enough, but to understand Prynne's joke about what would happen if Harrington and his friends did prove successful, it is necessary to know a little more about seventeenth-century coinage and the Harrington family's association with it.

Coin shortages, particularly of small denomination coins, had been a common problem from medieval times. The farthing, or quarter penny, was originally introduced in 1279, but the problem was still acute in the seventeenth century, when various solutions were attempted. These included issuing copper coins for the first time in England (they were already widely used in Scotland) and experimenting with different economic models. Various proposals for coining copper tokens were explored between 1607 and 1612, but it was with a proclamation dated 19 May 1613 that the period of experimentation properly began. With that proclamation James I reclaimed the prerogative to issue currency and outlawed all private money. The utility of farthing tokens was noted: 'whereby such small portions, and quantities of things vendible, as the necessitie, and use specially of the poorer sort of people, doth oftentimes require, may be conveniently bought, and sold without enforcing men to buy more ware than will serve for their use and occasions'. (A Proclamation for Farthing Tokens, 19 May 1613). The proclamation also suggested that the inconveniences associated with the lead tokens that had been circulating among tradesmen and their customers would be remedied by the production of these royally endorsed copper farthings. The expectation was that the measure would not only address the problems of small change and counterfeiting, but would also generate a healthy revenue for the crown. As copper tokens, the coins were not legal tender, but were 'to pass for the value of farthings ... with the liking and consent of his loving subjects'. (I am grateful to Barrie Cook of the British Museum for help in researching this section).

 Sir John Harrington of Exton, by Magdalena and William de Passe, National Portrait Gallery, D25839. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Sir John Harrington of Exton, by Magdalena and William de Passe, National Portrait Gallery, D25839. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

What, then, was the involvement of the Harringtons in all of this? As discussed in a previous blogpost, in October 1603 Sir John Harrington and his wife Anne (James Harrington's great uncle and aunt) became guardians to the young Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I. From December of that year the princess lived with the Harringtons and they took responsibility for her household and education. This resulted in them incurring huge costs. By 1612 it is estimated that the Harringtons had accrued debts amounting to £40,000. Sir John Harrington petitioned for the right to coin copper farthings for three years to help recoup the costs. Thus, the proclamation of 19 May 1613 gave Harrington the monopoly on issuing copper farthing tokens and assigned to him £25,000 of the profits. Harrington gained the honour of having the farthings named after him - they were known as 'Haringtons' - but they did not  live up to expectations. The farthings proved unpopular from the outset, with several counties refusing to take any at all and others taking only small quantities, so that the total value distributed in the first six months was barely £600 (C. Wilson Peck, English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958, second edition, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1964, p. 21). It also seems that they did not prevent old practices of using lead tokens and of damaging or counterfeiting the royal tokens, since on 26 October 1615 a proclamation was issued outlawing the use of lead tokens and forbidding the counterfeiting of royal tokens as well as the marking, defacing, boring and clipping of them. From the perspective of the Harrington family the farthings not only failed to produce the expected level of revenue, but they also generated other problems. Rivals for the monopoly had been vocal from the outset. Following the death, in quick succession, of both Sir John Harrington and his son, private traders again began issuing their own tokens, presuming that the powers of the patent had lapsed. However, a proclamation issued on 21 June 1614 declared the patent still to be valid and argued that it lay with Sir John’s widow, though she seems to have given it up soon after.

There is a final chapter to this tale. On 9 May 1643 it was ordered that the future republican author, James Harrington, and his merchant brother William be made overseers of the farthing office, the proceeds of which were now to be used not to pay off the family debt, but rather ‘for the Use and Benefit of the Prince Elector Palatine’, on whose behalf James Harrington worked. It is undoubtedly significant that the Prince Elector Palatine was the son and heir of Princess Elizabeth. Consequently, despite the change of focus, this can be seen as the last chapter in the story. It helps to explain why Prynne, as late as 1659, could assume that his audience would laugh at a joke directed at James Harrington that associated utopian schemes to mint commonwealths with farthings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One year on - an intellectual biography of James Harrington

Given that this is my twelfth monthly blog, it seems a good moment to reflect on where I have got to, and on plans for the year to come. The blog posts have been anchored in the twin themes of Harrington and grief, but have ranged widely, exploring such topics as: the origins of modern democratic government; the life of the Queen of Bohemia; seventeenth-century wills and grave monuments; and the origins and uses of the Virgilian phrase 'Mens Molem Agitat'. In the course of the year my Harrington project, originally inspired and gifted to me by my late husband John Gurney, has blossomed. At the end of this month I will embark on a Mid-Career fellowship, kindly funded by the British Academy, which will provide me with the opportunity to complete my research on Harrington and to finish writing an intellectual biography of him. This will be published by Oxford University Press. Having spent the last two posts considering intellectual biography as a form, I want to say a little more here about my plans for my intellectual biography of Harrington and the work that I will do more generally during my fellowship.

 James Harrington by an unknown artist c. 1635. National Portrait Gallery, NPG513. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

James Harrington by an unknown artist c. 1635. National Portrait Gallery, NPG513. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

As I noted in last month's blog, one reason why I see the intellectual biography as a useful form, and one particularly appropriate to Harrington, is the opportunity it provides to acknowledge the interconnection between the external life and actions of the subject and the internal life of the mind. This seems particularly appropriate to a political thinker who was keen for his writings to have an impact on the politics of his own day. Much of the focus on Harrington to date has been on his writings rather than his life, largely because no personal papers have survived, making reconstruction of that life difficult. Yet information about his life can be gleaned from other sources and, as I argued in my paper at the workshop, integrating discussion of Harrington's life and works complicates and enriches our understanding of both. In particular, uncovering details of his life before 1656, not least his positive relations with members of the Stuart family, raises questions about the nature and extent of his commitment to republican government. Thus, one of the key arguments of my book will be that while Harrington did advocate republican government to some degree, the nature of his republicanism was not typical of the time; and he challenged, and even subverted, conventional republican ideas and practices.

 James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, based on a work of c. 1658. National Portrait Gallery, NPG41090. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

James Harrington after Sir Peter Lely, based on a work of c. 1658. National Portrait Gallery, NPG41090. Reproduced under the National Portrait Gallery's Creative Commons Licence.

As well as complicating our understanding of the precise kind of republican government that Harrington was committed to, the book will also argue that a more comprehensive account of Harrington's life and thought can be produced if we move beyond the recent obsession with his republicanism. During my fellowship I will explore Harrington's contribution to four other fields of thought. First, there is his status as an historian. Harrington might be seen as rather traditional in his attitude to history, given his belief that past (particularly ancient) models can be utilised in the present. Yet, in fact, his approach was dynamic. Rather than simply seeking to revive and apply such models in the present, he approached them as a basis for future innovation. Harrington was also innovative in being one of the first thinkers to address the causes of the English Civil War, offering a distinctive long-term explanation for the outbreak of that event. Secondly, I will examine Harrington's contribution to religious debates of the age, particularly those concerning the Hebrew Commonwealth and the method of ordination within the church. Here, too, Harrington adopted a novel position, combining religious toleration with a national church, and Erastianism with democratic church government. Thirdly, I will pay attention to Harrington's philosophical thinking. His complex understanding of the relationship between body, reason and spirit underpinned his entire political model, but also set him at odds with leading thinkers of the day, particularly those associated with the Royal Society. Finally, it is my contention that Harrington was innovative not just in the content of his works, but also in their form and style. His literary interests, including his translations of the works of Virgil, have largely been ignored by historians of political thought; and the fundamental importance of the interaction between form and content in The Commonwealth of Oceana is only just beginning to be uncovered. Yet just as Harrington's philosophical thinking underpinned his politics, so the content of his works was reflected in and demonstrated by the form in which it was expressed.

Harrington's playfulness when it comes to the form and style of his work is not just something I plan to investigate, but also something I have been attempting to imitate, not least through this blog. During the fellowship, then, I will continue my monthly posts, but the focus will shift slightly. In each one I will use Harrington's ideas as a springboard for approaching contemporary political issues. The topics may evolve as the year progresses, but are likely to cover such topics as: republics versus monarchies; what is democracy?; holding representatives to account; and popular initiative in a parliamentary system.

The fellowship begins in October and these posts will start in November, once the project is properly underway. For October I have a final more anecdotal post about coinage, which seems appropriate to the month in which the version of the pound coin that has been in circulation since 1983 will cease to be legal tender, being replaced by a new twelve-sided design.

 

Intellectual Biographies Workshop, Newcastle University 04.07.17

intellectualbiographiesprogramme.jpg

 Intellectual biography is in vogue at present. Edmund Burke, David Hume and Karl Marx have all been the subject of recent studies and these have been widely reviewed in academic journals and the popular press. There is also biographical interest in a number of seventeenth-century figures, as a workshop held at Newcastle University on 4 July testified. The aim was to explore intellectual biography as a genre or approach, and to consider the particular challenges it presents as well as the opportunities it offers. The discussion was stimulating and wide-ranging and has set me thinking about many issues.

One is the very nature of intellectual biography itself. A common approach to this, discussed at the workshop, involves a distinction between the work and the life, or perhaps even between the 'external life' and the internal 'life of the mind'. In these terms, intellectual biography can be contrasted, on the one hand, with critical commentary that focuses on published texts alone, and, on the other, with biographies focused exclusively on the private or public life of a subject who did not produce a corpus of published writings, or who is not examined in these terms. Despite this broad consensus, however, several participants at the workshop preferred to avoid the label. So Nick McDowell's study of John Milton will be an 'intellectual life' rather than an intellectual biography and Mike Braddick's biography of John Lilburne is to be titled a 'political life'.

Another issue concerns whether certain subjects are better fitted for intellectual biography than others. At the workshop it was noted that intellectual biographies are more common for the post-1800 period. One reason for this may be that in the early-modern period, generally speaking, the sources are more fragmentary, making it more difficult to recreate the inner life (and sometimes even the external life) from the source material. Sarah Hutton pointed out that this problem is frequently exacerbated where the subject is a woman, since they had fewer opportunities to express their ideas publicly and their private papers are less likely to have been preserved. This can encourage speculation in order to fill in the gaps, but another approach is to focus more on reconstructing the intellectual context around the subject from other sources, not just directly through the subject's own writings, public and private.

Also, in the case of early-modern studies the biographer is more remote from the mental world of the subject, making its reconstruction more difficult, but perhaps also requiring the biographer to build up the mental world from evidence rather than assuming that (s)he understands it. The particular character of the subject may further complicate this.

 John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

 Nick McDowell raised the common objection to intellectual biographies of poets that this approach tends to turn poems into vehicles for ideas and downplays the timeless, creative, literary spark of such works. There was also some discussion at the workshop of the idea that a woman's intellectual life might be of a different character or quality from that of most men. This is certainly true in the case of Anne Conway, who, as Hutton explained, did not philosophise in a familiar way. In part this was down to the fact that she had not had the traditional classical education enjoyed by most of her fellow philosophers. The same could, of course, be said of a man like John Lilburne who, though he attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, did not go on to university or attend an inn of court. Lilburne, like Conway, had acquired his knowledge in more unconventional and autodidactic ways. Partly because of this, but also partly because of his role as an activist rather than a thinker, his thought is frequently inconsistent and his arguments are not always accurate, even when they were influential. It would be incorrect to suggest that such people as Conway and Lilburne did not have a mental life worthy of investigation, but it may be that different approaches and modes of expression are required in order to do justice to the lives and thought of such individuals.

 John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

 Even in the case of those who might seem eminently suitable subjects for an intellectual biography, such as philosophers, problems still arise. There is, for example, a potential conflict between the discipline of philosophy, which explores timeless ideas, and the format of biography which is concerned precisely with setting events and ideas within a fixed chronology. Mark Goldie alluded to this problem in slightly different terms when he noted that most of those interested in leading philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are concerned with their canonical texts rather than with their more minor works, or the minutiae of their daily lives.

A major problem with intellectual biographies that participants at the workshop kept returning to is the danger of imposing consistency or coherence where it does not exist. This can take various forms. It might be that the biographer ends up creating coherence out of fragmentary evidence and then imposing it back onto the subject. However, it could equally be that a biographer has to engage with the subject's own self-fashioning, which may have created a coherence that is not, in fact, borne out by the evidence. Gaby Mahlberg's current project adds a further dimension to this problem in that she is writing the biography not of a single individual but of three English republican thinkers. Here, as in the individual cases, it is perhaps as much about understanding or making sense of disruptions and discontinuities as seeking to find unity or coherence.

 John Lilburne from  The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne  (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Lilburne from The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

Despite the many problems facing the intellectual biographer, there was much agreement about the value of the approach. As I argued in my paper on James Harrington, this allows the relationship between the life and the works (the external and internal lives) to be explored and appreciated, and can result in revelations about the influence of an individual's life experiences on his/her thought or, conversely, the impact of their ideas on their political and social actions. Intellectual biography was also praised for encouraging the exploration not just of texts, but of the social context of their production, the networks (intellectual and practical) of their authors, as well as their audiences and reception. In this respect a contrast was drawn between those working on more well-known figures, who might want to merge the subject into the crowd, for a time, in order to be able to see and appreciate the context in which they were operating, and those working on more obscure figures, who need to be given the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. This is perhaps particularly important in the case of women, so long hidden within history. Sarah Hutton emphasised the importance of producing intellectual biographies of women in order to restore them to visibility and to demonstrate that women, even early-modern women, had mental lives worthy of exploration. It is equally important in the case of male figures too, though, and can be illuminating beyond the individual. MikeBraddick spoke of the value, to a self-confessed social historian with an interest in state formation and structures, of exploring a life such as Lilburne's within a changing sociological context and of using his life and ideas to elucidate the history of political engagement more generally. 

 Indeed if one thing was evident at our workshop it was that intellectual biography is an inherently interdisciplinary approach. Our speakers and panellists come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (English Literature, Intellectual History, Philosophy, Social History, Modern Languages). The subjects they are working on are equally diverse (poets, political thinkers, philosophers, political activists). But, whatever the specific expertise of author and subject, it is almost impossible to produce an intellectual biography without drawing on more than one discipline.

 

Intellectual Biography as Memorialisation

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My last two posts have focused on methods of memorialisation,  specifically funeral monuments and commemorative events. In this post I want to explore what is in some ways a more lasting method of memorialisation - the biography. A relevant example is John Aubrey’s Brief Lives which comprised accounts of almost three hundred lives, and marked an important moment in the shift towards the modern biographical model. Aubrey writes particularly eloquently on the role of the biographer. He described his main aim in Brief Lives as being to avoid 'worthy men's Names and Notions' from being 'swallowed-up in oblivion'. As his recent biographer Ruth Scurr writes: 'He had an acute sense of how quickly living memory dies, and wanted to preserve what he could on paper'. (Ruth Scurr, 'Faithful innovator', Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2016.) Ultimately, Aubrey likened the biographer's task to that of a magician:

'So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their grave many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Cuystomes and Fashions, that were of old Times'. (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. Lawson Dick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1949, p. 162)

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Bringing the dead back to life might seem like a tall order for a potential biographer, but it can hardly be doubted that Aubrey succeeds in this aim. Excellent examples can be found in the life which sparked Brief Lives, that of Thomas Hobbes. In the first place, Aubrey had a wonderfully precise and idiosyncratic way of describing his subject's visual features:

'In his old age he was very bald (which claymed a veneration) yet within dore, he used to study, and sitt bare-headed, and sayd he never tooke cold in his head, but that the greatest trouble was to keepe-off the Flies from pitching on the baldnes... Face not very great; ample forehead; whiskers yellowish-redish, which naturally turned up - which is a signe of a brisque witt. Belowe he was shaved close, except a little tip under his lip...

He had a good eie, and that of a hazell colour, which was full of Life and Spirit, even to the last. When he was earnest in discourse, there shone (as it were) a bright live-coale within it. He had two kinds of lookys: when he laugh't, was witty, and in a merry humour, one could scarce see his Eies; by and by, when he was serious and positive, he opene'd his eies round.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, pp. 313-4.)

Yet, Aubrey was equally good at describing, the more private aspects of his subjects. As, for example, in this extract on Hobbes's manner of writing Leviathan

'He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating always with this Rule that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time... He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his Staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a Note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entred it into his Booke, or els he should perhaps have lost it. He had drawne the Designe of the Booke into Chapters, etc, so he knew whereabouts it would come in. Thus that booke was made.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, p. 311).

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Aubrey is perhaps the most important contemporary source for Harrington's life, and the description of his appearance is equally vivid: 'He was of a middling stature well trussed man strong, and thick, well sett, sanguine. quick-hott-fiery hazell-Eie. thick curld moyst haire' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, I, p. 322.) Aubrey also offers enlightening information on Harrington's ideas and how he came to them:

'He made severall Essayes in Poetry; viz. love-verses etc. and translated ... booke of Virgills Aeneid but his Muse was rough: and Mr Henry Nevill, an ingeniose, and well-bred Gent, a member of the House of Commons, and an excellent (but concealed) Poet, was his great familiar and Confident friend: and disswaded him from tampering in Poetrie which he did in vitá Minervâ and to improve his proper Talent, viz Politicall Reflections. Whereupon he writ his Oceana, printed London...

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Now this Modell upon Rotation, was that the third part of the Senate Howse, should rote out by Ballot every yeare, so that every ninth yeare the Howse would be wholly alterd. no Magistrate to continue above 3 yeares, and all to be chosen by Ballot. then which manner of Choice, nothing can be invented more faire, and impartiall.' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 318 and 320.)

The nature of biography and its functions is currently on my mind since not only am I in the midst of writing a book entitled James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography for Oxford University Press, but I am also hosting a workshop on Early-Modern Intellectual Biographies at Newcastle University on Tuesday 4 July.

intellectualbiographiesprogramme

At this workshop five other scholars will join me in discussing their recent experience of writing about a leading seventeenth-century English figure or figures. Several Newcastle colleagues with experience of working on intellectual biographies about people of other places and times will also contribute. By listening to these papers and commentaries, and discussing the issues they raise, I hope we will be able to explore some of the opportunities and challenges that this genre offers. These might include exploring appropriate ways of integrating biographical detail with analysis of the subject's thought and writings; considering the ways in which an individual life might illuminate a period more generally; and addressing the issue of how to balance a concern with enhancing the memory of a person with documenting all of the relevant facts about their life and thought.

There is also a sense in which the life of the mind can potentially continue to play a role posthumously; whereas death, literally, places a final date on the life of action. This fact is in my thoughts at present since my husband John Gurney's final article 'Gerrard Winstanley and the Left', which he was working on when he died, has just been published in Past and Present. Despite two and a half years now having elapsed since his death, John's mind now has a fresh opportunity to influence others. 

All of this also makes me wonder about my own motives for turning to the genre of intellectual biography in the aftermath of John's death. I was conscious from the start of being driven into working on Harrington because of the research that John had already undertaken, and the notes he left to me. I have commented elsewhere on how this project operated as a bridge between my old life with him and my new one without. But now I wonder also whether there is not something especially appealing to me at this time about Aubrey's idea of biography as a conjuring trick.

Memorial Events

Perhaps it was because of his own immersion in the history of seventeenth-century England, and the obsession at that time for memorialisation, or perhaps it is just a natural human instinct, but when my husband John was diagnosed with terminal cancer he became concerned about his own legacy. Besides the bench near to our home that he requested, he was also keen to have a memorial in the village of Cobham in Surrey, the home of Gerrard Winstanley, and the setting for the radical Digger movement’s occupation of common land in April 1649. 

 John Gurney's thesis and publications. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Gurney's thesis and publications. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Winstanley and the Diggers had been the main focus of John’s research from the time he began working on a DPhil at Sussex University in the 1980s. This focused on the County of Surrey during the English Revolution. He was supervised by Willie Lamont, the inspirational historian of seventeenth-century England. By the time he died, John had written several articles and two books on this subject. His first book, Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), sought to set this unusual radical movement in its local Surrey context, demonstrating the extent to which the movement grew out of, and fed on, existing social tensions; and detailing the impact of civil war on the local community. The second book, Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy (London: Pluto Press, 2013), focuses more directly on the Digger leader, tracing both the origins of his ideas and writings, and their subsequent impact (and that of the Diggers’ actions) on politics and popular culture right up to the twenty-first century.

 Brave Community poster, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Brave Community poster, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Given the focus of his first book, an event in Cobham seemed a particularly appropriate way of remembering John. Before he died, he had already spoken to a couple of fellow Winstanley experts about this: David Taylor, an historian based in Cobham who is extremely knowledgeable about the local area; and Andrew Bradstock who organised a commemorative conference on the Diggers in 1999 (the 350th anniversary of the Digger movement). John had himself attended that anniversary conference and had contributed to the resulting collection of essays, Winstanley and the Diggers 1649-1999 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2000). Consequently, after John died it was to David and Andrew that I turned for assistance in thinking about a suitable memorial.

Quite quickly we hit upon the idea of organising an afternoon of talks, readings, video clips, and music focusing on Winstanley and the Diggers. My aim was to create the kind of event that John himself would have enjoyed; and to open it up not just to his family, friends and colleagues, but to anyone with an interest in Winstanley and the Digger Movement. I was honoured that Michael Wood, the public historian well known for his engaging BBC Television series ’Story of England’, and more recently for his groundbreaking series on the history of China, agreed to speak. Michael had produced a programme dealing with the Civil War, which touched on Winstanley and the Diggers, as part of a series on the history of England for Jubilee year. As a result, he was familiar with both the Digger movement and Cobham, and already knew John’s work. At the same time, John had been particularly impressed by the thoughtful and sensitive way in which Michael engaged with and presented the history of England in his television programmes. Consequently, in so many ways, Michael was an ideal choice. We also managed to secure a panel of Digger experts, including Ariel Hessayon, Rachel Foxley and David Taylor himself, to speak more directly about the movement and its place within a wider radical context. Finally, Leon Rosselson, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who wrote, among many other things, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, which tells the story of the Digger Movement, very kindly agreed to come and provide musical entertainment.

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 Brave Community programme, designed by Roger Newbrook.

Brave Community programme, designed by Roger Newbrook.

 Leon Rosselson, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Leon Rosselson, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

I called the event ‘Brave Community’ after John’s first book. It seemed appropriate not just because of the reference back to the book, but also because those two words resonated strongly with me. John had been very brave in the face of his devastating cancer diagnosis, and bore everything that this horrendous disease threw at him with a calmness and dignity that both astounded me and simultaneously gave me strength. Since he died, the children and I have had to continue to be brave, as have his parents, his sisters and all who loved him. Bravery is a word that is so often associated with violence, war and aggressive action, yet the immense courage required to calmly continue with life in the face of illness, death and bereavement involves bravery of a much more enduring kind. While to some extent each of us had to face the horror alone, I know that I have drawn great strength and assistance in my darkest moments from what I have come to think of as ‘John’s community’. This is an eclectic group comprised of John’s family, friends - old and new, and colleagues past and present. Many of them attended John’s funeral or wrote to me at that time, and a wonderful number have kept in touch since. They provided me with sustenance by their kind words and by making clear that, lonely as I sometimes felt, I was not the only one who mourned the loss of John Gurney. It strikes me as odd, but at the same time absolutely right, that 'John’s community' has continued to exist and to remain important even in his absence. 

 Michael Wood, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Michael Wood, Brave Community, Cobham, 21 May 2016. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

So, approximately 100 people willingly spent a sunny May afternoon in Cobham Church learning about Winstanley and the Diggers and celebrating John’s life and work. Some had travelled a long way to be there These included a group from Wigan, Winstanley’s birthplace, where an annual Digger Festival is held; and another group from Wellingborough, the site of another Digger settlement, and now also the setting for an annual celebration of Winstanley and his comrades. Also attending were a number of Surrey residents with an interest in their own local history.

 Frontispiece to John Toland's edition of  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington  (London, 1737). Private Copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Frontispiece to John Toland's edition of The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington (London, 1737). Private Copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Though attitudes to history and death have changed dramatically since early-modern times, as well as always being contested and subject to different interpretations, commemorative events took place then as they do now. One only has to think about the annual marking of the regicide in the late seventeenth century. This included both 30th of January sermons hailing Charles I as a martyr and gatherings of those who lamented the passing of the Good Old Cause (even if they did not actually do so by devouring a calf's head as the mischievous publican and anti-Whig satirist Ned Ward claimed). Of course, gatherings and events are notoriously difficult for historians to recover in detail, and so it is perhaps not surprising that no records remain about commemorations of Harrington after his death. However, we do have an important commemorative object which, just like our event for John, celebrates Harrington’s work and seeks to demonstrate the continuing relevance and importance of it. This object is John Toland’s beautiful and richly decorated frontispiece to his edition of Harrington’s political works.

Funeral Monuments

Mourning jewellery and bequests in wills are two ways in which dead friends and relatives might be remembered. Another method of remembrance, one that also remains just as common in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth, is physical memorials or monuments of one kind or another. As the father of two young children my husband was particularly concerned to leave some physical mementos behind and one idea that appealed to him was for us to have a bench made in memory of him that could be placed in a quiet spot at an English Heritage property near our home. It is a site that all four of us loved and which we visited many times. The bench would be a public memorial to John, but it would also provide the three of us with a place where we could go to sit and think about happy times together. 

 Monument to Sir James and Lucy Harrington in the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Exton, Rutland. Image by Catherine Snowball.

Monument to Sir James and Lucy Harrington in the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Exton, Rutland. Image by Catherine Snowball.

Reading the wills and visiting some of the places associated with the Harrington family drew to my attention the importance to them too of public memorialisation. James Harrington’s grandfather and namesake Sir James Harrington of Ridlington (d.1614) appears to have been particularly committed to this practice. In the first place, Sir James was responsible for the memorial in the church of St Peter and St Paul in the village of Exton in Rutland, which commemorates his father (and my James Harrington’s great grandfather) Sir James Harrington of Exton (1511-1592) and his wife Lucy Sidney. They both lived into their 70s and together they bore eighteen children. The monument depicts the couple kneeling at a prayer desk facing each other. Sir James Harrington of Ridlington, who was sole executor of his parents’ wills, explained his reason for erecting the monument, and in doing so reflected the dual purpose that such memorials perform. It was dedicated, he explained, to the ’eternal Memory’ of his father and mother, but as well as commemorating them, it also served a function for their living relatives, and particularly Sir James himself: ‘that he might as well perform to his Parents their Rites, as leave a Testimony of his own Piety to Posterity’. While the motivations behind our bench were entirely secular, it too was to serve a purpose both for John and for the three of us left.

 Kelway Monument in the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Exton, Rutland. Image by Catherine Snowball.

Kelway Monument in the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Exton, Rutland. Image by Catherine Snowball.

A second Harrington monument in Exton church is known as the Kelway monument. It celebrates the union between the Kelway and Harrington families via the marriage of Sir James and Lucy’s eldest son John Harrington to Anne Kelway, daughter of Sir Robert Kelway a well-known Elizabethan lawyer. This richly decorated alabaster monument depicts the effigy of Robert Kelway in the centre, with his daughter Anne, son-in-law Sir John and their son, also John Harington kneeling alongside. It was, of course, Sir John and Anne who became the guardians of James I’s eldest daughter Elizabeth.  Moreover, there is a further memorial to Elizabeth and her connection to the Harington family in the nearby Tunnely Wood, since one of the paths in the park is still known as the Queen of Bohemia’s ride.

The Exton monument to Sir James and Lucy Harington was not the only one commissioned by Sir James Harrington of Ridlington during his lifetime. And it would seem that by the time of his own death, just over twenty years later, he no longer felt the monument to his parents to be a sufficient testimony to his own piety or his family’s honour. Sir James’s will, which was written on 21 July 1613 and proved on 14 February 1614, refers to him having set up a little memorial at Ridlington. This memorial can still be seen in the Church of St Mary and St Andrew, in the north wall of the chancel. It is a small alabaster monument with entablature depicting Sir James and his first wife Frances who was the co-heiress of Robert Sapcote. Significantly Sir James and his wife are depicted facing each other in a kneeling position, presumably deliberately echoing the stances of his parents in the Exton monument (and, indeed the Kelway monument too). Moreover, Sir James decreed in his will that on his own death he wanted inserted onto the monument the date of his death ‘and my stile with a blouddie hand in a Scutchin which honor the king hath given us of that rank’. His justification for this request, though probably designed to remind later observers of his family’s connections to the Stuarts, was at least expressed in a tone of modesty: ‘which though I have noe pride therein, so doe I not disdaine that badge his majestie hath given to me and my heirs male for ever’.

 Bench in memory of John Gurney. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Bench in memory of John Gurney. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Since a bench in his memory was one of just a handful of things that John was very insistent about before his death, it was, of course, one of the tasks I quickly put my mind to after he had died. Making the arrangements was not entirely straightforward, not least because for a long period of the winter months English Heritage’s legacy office in London (which approves and makes arrangements for benches to be constructed and situated appropriately) was only open Monday to Friday while the local site was only staffed on a Saturday and Sunday, making it difficult for them to liaise with each other. However, English Heritage’s staff were extremely helpful and supportive. They found us a beautiful secluded spot for the bench and co-ordinated its construction. Consequently, just over six months after John’s death our bench was installed. We visit it on special occasions and anniversaries and sometimes just when we are passing. Friends who know about it have visited it too and I have even had acquaintances tell me that they found it unexpectedly and spent a few minutes sitting and thinking about John and our family. It may not be an alabaster monument with detailed carved figures and family crests, but in many ways it does a similar job, and in its quiet beauty and dignity it is a fitting tribute to John.

Mens Molem Agitat

 Newcastle University's Mensbar. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Newcastle University's Mensbar. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Student votes rarely make the local paper, but last month the decision by students at Newcastle University to change the name of the student bar to Luther (after Martin Luther King Jr. who was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University in 1967) was discussed in the Chronicle. The reason for this publicity has less to do with the new name and its inspiration, than with the bar’s original label: ‘Mensbar’. It has long been a source of bemusement - and sometimes even shock - to new students at Newcastle that this name should be deemed acceptable in the twenty-first century. This is not, of course, a drinking establishment that is only accessible to half the student population (the absence of an apostrophe is - in this case at least - very deliberate). Yet shockingly, according to the Students’ Union education officer - Chris Duddy - in the Chronicle article, the name did originally refer to the bar’s refusal to admit women. The more common explanation on campus (and the reason the name has not been changed before) is that it is in fact a pun on the University’s Latin motto ‘mens molem agitat’. The University translates the tag as ‘mind moves matter’, which fits well with the commitment to civic engagement that is central to the University’s mission. The idea that minds can have a positive impact on the world, that they can effect change for the better, lies at the very heart of the idea of a civic university and is the antithesis of the image of the university as an ivory tower. Yet if Duddy is correct, and the Latin motto was ‘retrofitted’ to explain a name that had become distinctly uncomfortable by the 1990s, then it is by no means the first time that this particular Latin tag has been appropriated and altered to fit new ends.

 The Newcastle University motto on the Bedson Building. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

The Newcastle University motto on the Bedson Building. Photograph by R. Hammersley.

Aware, as I was, of the University’s motto, I was somewhat surprised to come across it in Harrington’s most esoteric work The Mechanics of Nature. The work did not appear during Harrington’s lifetime, but was first published in the 1700 edition of Harrington’s works, which was produced by John Toland. This Harrington volume was part of a wider publishing campaign led by Toland which revived key seventeenth-century ‘republican’ texts and sought to make them palatable to the religious and political circumstances at the turn of the eighteenth century, and to serve Toland’s own campaigns. The status of The Mechanics of Nature within the Harringtonian canon has been particularly uncertain thanks partly to Toland’s notoriously unscrupulous attitude to editing, and partly to the circumstances in which the work was said to have been composed. As the preface to the text explains, the work was allegedly written after Harrington had been ill for approximately nine months and was, at least in part, designed to make sense of that illness, which had confounded his physicians. The aim, the preface suggested, was to ‘truly deliver to the world how I felt and saw Nature; that is, how she came first into my senses, and by the senses into the understanding’. (Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq. London, 1737, p. xliii). According to both Toland and Harrington’s friend John Aubrey, Harrington had become ill as a result of his imprisonment following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Aubrey’s description of the illness is worth quoting in full:

    His durance in these Prisons (he being a Gent of a high spirit and hot head) was the … cause of his … madnesse, which was not outragious, for he     would discourse rationally enough, and be very facetious company: but he grew to have a phancy, that his Perspiration turned to Flies, and     sometimes to Bees … and he had built, a versatile timber house in Mr Harts garden (opposite to St James’s parke) to try the experiment. He would     turne it to the sun, and sitt towards it; then he had his fox-tayles there to chase away, and massacre all the Flies and bees that were to be found there:     and then shut his Chassees. Now this Experiment was only to be tried in Warme-weather: and some flies would lye so close in the cranies, and the     cloath (with which it was hung) that they would not presently shew themselves a quarter of an hower after perhaps a fly or two or more might be     drawen-out of the lurking holes by the warmeth, and then he would crye-out, doe you not see it apparently that these come from me? (John Aubrey,     Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett. Oxford, 2015, I, p. 321).

The Mechanics of Nature, though incomplete, appears to be Harrington’s explanation for this phenomenon, since he there presents the idea of ministerial or animal spirits that work for good or evil in human bodies as well as in the universe more generally. The flies and bees that he claimed emerged from his body were presumably, according to Harrington, manifestations of these spirits. The somewhat curious idea of these animal spirits was grounded in the idea of nature as breath or spirit, as the ‘Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World’. It was to illuminate this point that Harrington quoted the passage containing the phrase Mens molem agitat or, in its original form, mens agitat molem.

In the beginning Spirit fed all things from within, the sky and the earth, the level waters, the shining globe of the moon and the Titan's star, the sun. It was Mind that set all this matter in motion. Infused through all the limbs, it mingled with the great body, and from the union there sprang the families of men and of animals, the living things of the air and the strange creatures born beneath the marble surface of the sea.    The living force within them is of fire and its seeds have their source in heaven, but their guilt-ridden bodies make them slow and they are dulled by earthly limbs and dying flesh.  It is this that gives them their fears and desires, their griefs and joys. Closed in the blind darkness of this prison they do not see out to the winds of air. (Virgil, Aeneid, translated by David West, 6. 724-729).

 James Harrington's 'The Mechanics of Nature', in  The Oceana and Other works of James Harrington Esq. , ed. Toland (London 1737). Copy from a private collection.

James Harrington's 'The Mechanics of Nature', in The Oceana and Other works of James Harrington Esq., ed. Toland (London 1737). Copy from a private collection.

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The meaning here, then, is less ideas having a practical impact on the world than mind or spirit animating or bringing life to earthly matter such as human bodies. As Harrington himself acknowledged in The Mechanics of Nature, there is a religious undertone to the idea. There he also describes nature as the ‘Word’ and the ‘Providence’ of God. The religious element is also evident in the original text from which the quotation is taken. It comes from book 6 of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, a work which we know meant a great deal to Harrington, since he not only included quotations from it in his works on several occasions, but also translated several books from it - including book 6. The passage comes at the point when the hero Aeneas has just crossed the river Styx into the underworld to speak with his dead father Anchises. Aeneas asks whether there are really souls that return from the underworld to bodily form under the sky and in response Anchises confirms that souls can make that move and explains the interrelation between spirit and matter.

In Newcastle’s Mensbar bodies are perhaps animated more by alcoholic spirits than by the spirit of nature, but the campaign to change the name is itself an embodiment of the idea of mind moving matter - even if in this case the matter in question is only the signage at the entrance to the university establishment.