Three Kingdoms?

Curtis Perry
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

The acknowledgements printed at the beginning of British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 2006) explain that the bulk of its chapters emerged out of a conference held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2005 and planned by the Folger’s Center for the History of British Political Thought.   The volume itself, as we learn from the blurb on the inside of its dust jacket, “celebrates the contributions of the Folger Institute to British Studies over many years.”   There is, then, a kind of retrospective or summarizing impulse governing this book, and so it seems fully appropriate that the volume’s editor, David Armitage, after a short introduction, should step aside and let an essay co-written by J. G. A. Pocock, Gordon Schochet, and Lois Schwoerer reframe the book’s contents in terms of the history of the so-called Cambridge School of political thought.   This school, whose analytical method centers upon the attempt to understand the meaning of political documents by locating them within their original discursive contexts, is closely identified with the work of Pocock (who co-founded the Folger Center with Schochet in 1985) and of Quentin Skinner, who contributes an afterword to the volume (one that manages to be at once generous and shrewd, I might add).   As its title implies, though, British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory offers a kind of snapshot of the way the field of British political thought–a field of inquiry whose contours are here understood in terms of the achievement of the Cambridge School–is studied across the disciplines of history, literary studies, and political science.   These disciplines, of course, all make and have made significant contributions to the study of British political thought, and certainly the work of historians like Pocock and Skinner have been influential in each of them.   As Armitage puts it in his introductory sketch, these are the three fields in which the approach to British political thought associated with the Folger Center and thus with Pocock and company has had “its greatest uptake” (2).

And yet, as Pocock, Schochet, and Schwoerer point out, the success of this school or method within the demimonde of early modern British historians has redrawn the borders somewhat between history and the other disciplines represented in the volume.   The insistence that political thought can best be understood in terms of historically specific political languages, for example, creates some potential for antagonism between historians of political thought and scholars working with some of the same texts from within political science, whose frameworks for understanding political writing often involve categories derived from philosophy or theory rather than from the excavation of historical context.   It would seem on the face of things that the Cambridge School’s emphasis upon language and discourse would in fact enable collaboration between historians and literary scholars, but this spirit of active cooperation has been slow in coming (even after more than two decades of historicist criticism in early modern literary studies) because of differences in the kinds of documents each discipline typically focuses on and because of larger differences in the modes of reading that have evolved within each field.   Because of the way the book is organized–as three discrete sections, each containing four essays, and each corresponding to one of the disciplines named in the title–the territorial differences between the disciplines are in fact heightened and exposed here rather than overcome.   So one of the striking things about reading the book from cover to cover is how different each disciplinary approach remains to what is ostensibly a single subject–British political thought.   Ultimately, then, the study of British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory is presented here as if it were itself a clash among three distinct kingdoms.

That joke, clumsy though it may be, is almost unavoidable given the book’s tripartite structure and the fact that its first suite of essays (“British Political Thought and History”) is given over to the question of how to reconcile British perspectives with those that have been developed from within the English, Irish, and Scottish traditions.   The opening chapter of this section is a historiographical essay on the New British History by John Morrill dedicated primarily to a taxonomy of ways in which historians working to make sense of British political thought have attempted to reconcile English with British historical perspectives.   Morrill can be strident here, such as when he dismisses the collective efforts of numerous scholars working on monarchical republicanism in Tudor-Stuart England as “breathtakingly blinkered” (28) for failing to take adequate notice of Irish and Scottish radicalism, but he is especially useful in offering ways to move beyond the now-orthodox “composite monarchy” model of thinking about early modern Britain.   Morrill argues that even this way of thinking about Britain is misleading in that it confers, retroactively, too much stability upon the individual nations and their nexus of relationships, and so he suggests that British political thought is best conceived of as taking place not in a settled triple monarchy but in an unstable and dynamic “dynastic agglomerate” (45) evolving over time as a result of both internal and external (i.e., continental European) factors.   Some of the same methodological questions are taken up again in Tim Harris’s essay at the end of the book’s first section.   Harris, whose ostensible subject is political thought of the period punctuated by the Exclusion Crisis and the Glorious Revolution, takes issue with Morrill’s dismissive response to merely national historical perspectives arguing, sensibly in my view, that different kinds of historical questions might require different perspectives: “depending on the questions we ask, sometimes the Three-Kingdoms perspective is going to come into sharp focus, at other times the national (or local or continental) will” (108).

This methodological/historiographical argument serves to bookend two highly interesting essays, two of the best in the volume, that deal respectively with Scottish and Irish political thought in the context of Britain.   In the first of these, Colin Kidd chooses to construe the question of British political thought in terms of thought about Britain, and he offers a cogent and illuminating comparative survey of Anglo-Scottish thought about national origins and sovereignty within Britain from the eleventh century up until the Acts of Union of 1707.   Medieval debates about the relationship between England and Scotland within the larger entity of Britain, as Kidd shows, predate Geoffrey of Monmouth, and come to feature both Galfridian and counter-Galfridian traditions.   Early modern debates pick up on this tradition, but are also infused with new arguments stemming from humanist advances in historiography and rendered more urgent by post-Reformation confessional conflict and questions of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.   Anglo-Scottish arguments about sovereignty are thus seen as constituting a distinct and evolving body of political thought, and part of what is so interesting here is the byplay Kidd is able to show between the continuity of argumentation within this tradition on the one hand, and, on the other, its capacity to incorporate, shape, and be reshaped by the logic of unfolding events.

Nicholas Canny’s chapter on “The Intersections between Irish and British Political Thought of the Early Modern Centuries” takes up a narrower band of history than does Kidd’s chapter, but takes great care to demarcate the different (and shifting) political arguments offered up by different segments (Old English, New English, Gaelic Irish, Catholic, Protestant, lay, clergy) of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland’s politically active population.   The overarching argument here is that Irish political thought, which more or less paralleled that of the rest of Britain in terms of the spectrum of available positions through the middle of the sixteenth century, quickly became much more variegated and radical as a result of the pressure for conformity applied by England.   Canny here points toward New English texts (like A View of the Present State of Ireland) which eschew moderate or traditionalist positions and argue for extremes of (Protestant) governmental authority, and also to the incursion of continental Catholic ideas about resistance which found traction in opposition to Elizabethan efforts to enforce conformity.   As Canny argues, methodological arguments about the relationship between national and pan-archipelagic perspectives do not really apply to Irish political thought seen in these terms.   In fact, he points towards mid-seventeenth-century Ulster, populated by Gaelic Irish, Old English, New English Protestants, and Scottish Covenanters, as “the world’s quintessentially British space” (87).

As we move from the section of the book consisting of essays by historians and into the section featuring the work of literary scholars, the methodological stakes of the collection seem to change completely.   These chapters–by Andrew Hadfield, Jean Howard, Stephen Zwicker, and Karen O’Brien–all deal centrally with questions concerning whether, and how, literature can serve as evidence for the excavation of political thought.   Not surprisingly, the contributors all agree that it can.   Howard and Zwicker each start from the perspective that literature as data yields insight into different aspects of an era’s political mentality than would more overt kinds of political argumentation. Howard focuses on the way that the representational resources and demands of the stage allows Shakespeare (Howard’s central text here is The First Part of the Contention, a.k.a. 2 Henry VI) to explore and refract the political concerns of his moment, eschewing polemic and making problems of state vivid for popular audiences who might otherwise not register in discussions of political thought.   Zwicker, drawing eclectically on passages from writers as disparate as Tacitus, Dryden, Donne, Congreve, and Marvell, offers a smart if perhaps overly schematic suggestion as to how to use the data of literary analysis within the intellectual history of ideas: he suggests that literature, with its ironies, dissimulations, and ambiguous figurations, can be used to explore how political ideas were voiced and deployed by real subjects with their own characteristic skepticisms, blind-spots, ambivalences, and multiple agendas.   One has the sense that each of these essays was written to persuade historians of thought about the richness of literary data; literary critics will likely feel that these essays are preaching to the choir.

The other two essays in this section, I’m happy to report, are more aggressive about staking out the significance of literary study within the history of political thought: each sets out to identify a specific way in which a specific set of literary texts contribute meaningfully and distinctly to the field of British political thought (as defined by historians).   Hadfield in particular seems to relish the idea that his argument might cause a border skirmish between the disciplines, arguing that “the study of political thought is too important to be left to political science and history alone” (111).   His argument to that effect resembles the one presented in the first half of his recent Shakespeare and Republicanism.[1]   Hadfield here suggests that we get an incomplete picture of Elizabethan and Jacobean political thought without consulting plays and poems, since these are the key vehicles for articulating republican ideas which were at once an important part of the era’s political mentality and more likely to be conveyed and explored via stories and images than via treatise or proposal.   O’Brien likewise suggests that literature is essential data for the study of political thought, and her argument to this effect begins with the premise that poetry, in the long eighteenth century, was always “a self-reflexively ethical activity” (171), one presumed by its producers and consumers to be a vehicle for political thought.   O’Brien’s argument, then, is both that Restoration and eighteenth-century poets meant to participate in their era’s public, political discourse, and that they helped shape the ideology of empire during this period of British colonial expansion.   In particular, O’Brien argues that poets were among the earliest British writers to articulate and explore the idea that empire should be benevolent, an idea that of course continued to be central to Britain’s image of itself as empire well beyond the period under discussion here.

The last of the three academic kingdoms represented here is political science.   Like the literary critics in section two, the political theorists who have contributed chapters to British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory are centrally concerned with methodological issues arising out of the contested border between their own discipline and history.   But unlike the literary critics, who are ultimately concerned with the question of how, or if, literary study is relevant to historical research, the political scientists are all interested in asking how, or if, historical contextualization (of the kind associated with Pocock and the Cambridge School) is really even necessary for or valuable to political theory.   This is explicitly the subject of Richard Flathman’s rather abstract methodological chapter, but it is implicit as a question in the other chapters in this section as well.   Thus, Duncan Ivison discusses early modern articulations of the idea of natural rights in the context of theories of empire because he hopes that doing so will clarify modern debates about the nature of human rights within the present international order, and Joanne Wright uses the writings of Margaret Cavendish in order to rethink the nature of public v. private speech, in part because Cavendish seems to her to anticipate theoretical positions advanced by second-wave feminists in the 1960s and ’70s.   These are both strong and learned essays, but what is striking about them in comparison to the other chapters of this volume is the degree to which they consciously use history as a way to intervene in or elaborate upon more or less contemporary theoretical debates.

Kirstie McClure’s outstanding essay, the third of four chapters in the political science section, deserves special mention as the most fully interdisciplinary piece in the entire collection, perhaps the single essay in the book most likely to appeal to readership from all three contributing disciplines.   It is perhaps not coincidental that McClure’s academic appointment (according to the contributor biographies supplied at the front of the book) is in both English and Political Science: she has dual citizenship, one might say.   But the reason her essay works across the disciplines is that it makes use of the resources of the burgeoning field of book history in order to rethink the contours of the history of thought.   In particular, McClure traces the often surprising ways in which three more or less canonical documents of political thought–the radical sixteenth-century tract Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society–were printed, excerpted, repackaged, and otherwise transformed in meaning by the subsequent mediations of readers, redactors, and printers.   If the Cambridge School studies texts as speech acts by attempting to locate them in their original discursive contexts, McClure reminds us that books, and especially books about which readers have cared for a long time, in fact survive as a series of material reproductions which are produced and read in contexts that can be very far removed from what their authors originally envisioned.   This approach has the virtue of challenging the reading protocols on display in all of the book’s other chapters, reminding us that the texts which constitute British political thought within any of these disciplines can also be productively understood as malleable, material social products.

The contributors to British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory are all distinguished, and the quality of the essays is on the whole high.   I am happy to have the book on my shelf, and I expect that I will have occasion to consult it in the future.   Because the essays come from rather disparate scholarly perspectives, though, I suspect that most readers will probably consult only those essays of immediate relevance to their own interests, understood in terms of both discipline and period focus.   Those readers who do choose to read the whole book from cover to cover, though, may wish, as I did, that Armitage had attempted to find some way to bring the different sections into more explicit dialogue with one another and perhaps even to encourage the historians–who are for the most part unruffled by the claims of literary scholars and political scientists–to think explicitly about methodological questions arising from the challenges of interdisciplinarity.   Skinner’s useful but brief afterword attempts to inaugurate interdisciplinary conversation, and ends with the remark that “we need to remain in constant dialogue with each other about the rival merits of different approaches” (285).   This book is to be praised for attempting to inaugurate such dialogue, to be sure, but it also must be said that it instantiates some of the obstacles that can prevent scholars in related but disparate fields from finding grounds for meaningful collaboration.


[1]   Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Republicanism (Cambridge and New York, 2005) .