The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 5. Petrus Cunaeus

In previous blogposts I have explored the ways in which James Harrington drew on the ideas of earlier thinkers. So far my focus has been on figures who remain well known today: Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon. But Harrington was also inspired by thinkers whose names have not survived so well in popular memory. 

Petrus Cunaeus, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

Petrus Cunaeus, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

One of these is the Dutch author Peter Cunaeus whose book De Republica Hebraeorum appeared in 1617 as part of a series of works produced by the Dutch printer Elsevier on past and present republics. It was translated into English by Clement Barksdale in 1653, not long after the English had established their own 'Commonwealth or Free State'. 

Harrington was particularly interested in two aspects of Cunaeus's account of the Hebrew Commonwealth. The first of these was the law of jubilee. This stated that every fifty years land that had been bought or alienated in the intervening period would be returned to its original owner. Cunaeus referred to this practice as the 'lex Agrarian Hebraeorum', which was translated by Barksdale as the 'Agrarian Law' (Petrus Cunaeus, Of the Common-Wealth of the Hebrews, translated by C. B., London, 1653, p. 13). Cunaeus did this in order to encourage comparison with other ancient practices, and especially the Roman agrarian law. Since Harrington explicitly advocated the establishment of an agrarian law for Oceana, this terminology - and Cunaeus's endorsement of the practice - was useful to him. The terms of Harrington's agrarian law were not identical to the Jewish idea of jubilee; he did not call for land to be returned to its original owner after a set period, but rather restricted the amount of land that could be passed on to one heir, effectively undermining the principle of primogeniture. Yet, both systems were designed to limit inequality without threatening social stability. 

The idea of an agrarian law was not popular at the time, even most seventeenth-century republicans followed Machiavelli in rejecting the practice. It is, therefore, all the more striking that Harrington followed Cunaeus in explicitly challenging Machiavelli's account of the fall of the Roman republic. Against Machiavelli, Cunaeus and Harrington insisted that it was the mismatch between the distribution of land and the holding of political power - essentially the failure to properly implement an agrarian law - that had caused the Roman republic to fall. Given the controversy surrounding agrarian laws, even among those who favoured republican government, Cunaeus's account was also useful to Harrington in its insistence that the law of jubilee was instituted by Moses at God's behest. Here, as elsewhere in his use of the Hebrew Commonwealth, Harrington was able to claim divine support for a controversial idea.

Image of Moses as taken from the frontispiece to  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Moses as taken from the frontispiece to The Oceana and other works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Religion also lay at the heart of the second aspect of Cunaeus's De Republica Hebraeorum that was important to Harrington. According to Cunaeus, God had given authority in both civil and religious matters to the civil magistrate. Instead of being viewed as separate jurisdictions, civil and religious affairs were both under the authority of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Once again this prefigured Harrington's own insistence in The Commonwealth of Oceana that a national church be preserved; and that it, and its clergy, were to remain under the authority of the state, although he also insisted that liberty of conscience should be granted to members of other Protestant sects. On this point, too, Harrington's use of Cunaeus set him apart from other English republicans at the time, most of whom advocated the complete separation of church and state.

Paying attention to Harrington's use of Cunaeus serves to correct the understanding of English republicanism that has tended, at least until the early twenty-first century, to ignore its religious dimension. Being able to draw a parallel with the Hebrew Republic provided a religious justification for some of the more innovative elements of Harrington's programme. At the same time, we can see that the question of how to organise religion was itself central to his concerns. Thanks to Cunaeus, Harrington was able to view the Hebrew Commonwealth as an ancient example that could usefully be deployed in early-modern constitution building.

These observations also have resonance today. Separating church and state has not always worked as an effective means of ensuring toleration for religious groups, not least because it tends to set up a contrast between religious organisations and the secularism of the state. Harrington certainly believed that toleration could be better secured under a system in which the civil magistrate oversaw the state religion, but also allowed freedom of conscience to separatist groups. The question of what the relationship should be between politics and religion remains a live issue today and one on which the sometimes simplistic solutions of the present might be complicated and enriched by attention to past discussions.

The relationship between property and political power has also proved to be a hot political topic in recent months. Research by Guy Shrubsole suggests that 1% of the people now own half of the land in England ( Moreover, without government intervention even greater disparity is likely in the future, since landowners can use the income they gain from rent and capital appreciation to buy yet more property. This was why Harrington argued for government intervention to reduce future inequality. In the light of Shrubsole's research Peter Hetherington has pointed in a similar direction, suggesting that the solution is to end 'the inheritance and capital gains tax breaks which make trading land so attractive to the few at the expense of the many' ( Yet many of those in positions of power remain unwilling to address the issue. At a time when the frontrunner in the Tory leadership campaign, Boris Johnson, has pledged to raise the higher-rate income tax threshold from £50,000 to £80,000, thereby cutting the tax bills of 3 million higher-income earners by approximately £3,000 (, we might wish to reconsider the mechanisms for redistributing wealth in the modern world and whether they are fit for purpose.

Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop


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 and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from 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.


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: