Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Hanging Up Kings: The Political Bible in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Hanging Up Kings: The Political Bible in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

The disputatious George Walker, preaching on the flaws of rulers and their councillors before the Commons in 1644, noted the occasional necessity of reprisals even against monarchs:

Adonibezek felt this, and had full experience of it: for as he had cut off the Thumbs, and great Toes of seventy Kings; so his Thumbs and great Toes were cut off, and then he, though an heathen King, confessed and said, As I have done, so God hath requited me.1

Despite being "an heathen king," Adoni-bezek admits the justice of his punishment, when Judah and Simeon cut off in turn, his thumbs and big toes. Charles I, in the opinion of many, had no such sense that the mild chastisements parliament was able to inflict, prior to the regicide, had any fairness to them. Closer still to the moment when such biblical exemplarity burst into regicidal life, a 1649 text, Little Benjamin or Truth Discovering Error, relates it still more directly to the English regicide, and the decision "to execute justice upon the grand Delinquent":

for that the King, their conquered and captivated Prisoner, by the rule, Lex talionis, ought to be done unto as he did unto others; and this Adoni-bezek, a Heathen King, acknowledged, saying, As I have done, so God hath done unto me; and they brought him to Jerusalem (the place of publike Justice) and there he died.2

There is, it is evident, a heavy political and ideological freight in such exegetical mining of the historical books of the Bible. However Adoni-bezek tends not to figure in our maps of civil war exemplarity and nor, indeed, do the intricacies of the many biblical actors - kings, judges, priests, and generals - who featured in the vast biblical discourse that constituted a major, though now largely invisible, language of political thought.3 Though historians have dealt exhaustively with the political and constitutional wrangles of the period, with theories of tyranny and resistance, there is a propensity to see the scriptural in early modern political writing, the resort to an Old Testament figure like Adoni-bezek, as a kind of biblical Tourette's Syndrome, without its having much substantive content.

There are modern correlates to this phenomenon: the vocabularies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought are waning and have largely fallen into disrepair if not disrepute: few would deem the notions of the "proletariat" or the "bourgeoisie," with all their ideological bogginess, as useful categories for thinking. "Laissez-faire" and commodity capitalism tend not to trip from the tongues of politicians any longer. Even "left" and "right," as political denominations, no longer firmly designate. This is of course far from saying that there will be no need to reformulate ideas and language that may bear some strong family resemblance to terminology that has decayed. Moreover, for the historian of ideas, there is an important geology of political thought in such vocabulary. The fossils of the twentiethcentury ideological landscape are there in the terms it fought over and, though we may no longer use them, we would surely not want to forget the power and nuance that such language once held. This essay contends that one such language of seventeenth-century thought - the biblical - once fully formed, vibrant and bitterly partisan, has been largely forgotten and, along with it, a swathe of political opinion has shifted, effectively, beyond our audible range.

While "religion" as an ecclesiastical, institutional, and doctrinal phenomenon in seventeenth-century England has been subject to intensive scrutiny, the language of scriptural thinking - deployed by royalist as much as parliamentarian - remains a blind-spot to scholarship. The scriptures provided both a sledgehammer and a scalpel for political analysis, amenable to subtle as well as crude deployment. In making such an argument, this essay has in its sights firstly, the historiography of seventeenth-century politics. At stake more broadly, however, beyond the specifics of the early modern constitutional crises, is the nature of political languages that decay or, as is the case with the Bible, a language whose discursive arena migrates. …

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