The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

Excerpt

I have tried in this book to present a theory of the fundamental nature and problems of constitutional historiography in the seventeenth century. I have not attempted to analyse exhaustively the character of English thought about the past, or to study the way in which constitutional history and theory were used as a source of arguments in contemporary political debate. It has seemed more illuminating instead to oppose to one another what appear to have been the two most important schools of thought: the common lawyers with their belief that the constitution was immemorial, and the few dissentients who sought to upset this theory by pointing out that it had once been informed with the principles of feudal tenure; to show how these interpretations arose; and to consider how they were related to some of the essential ideas in contemporary political theory and how these connexions encouraged or hampered their development. From the whole, it is hoped that there will emerge a picture of one of the most typical and necessary, but by historians one of the most neglected, strands in the thought of the seventeenth-century English: the attempt to understand themselves by understanding their past and their relation to it. This may partly excuse my failure to deal with Elsynge, Selden, Twysden, Somner, and many other good historians of that age, as fully as they deserve.

In trying to carry out this purpose, I have been led to put forward a certain generalization about the history of historiography. This is, in brief, that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries one of the most important modes of studying the past was the study of the law; that many European nations obtained knowledge of their history by reflecting, largely under the stimulus of contemporary political developments and theories, upon the character of their law; that the historical outlook which arose in each nation was in part . . .

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