Political Communication and Political Culture in England, 1558-1688

By Barbara J. Shapiro | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Historical Writing and Political Thought

It would be difficult to overestimate the role of historically framed communication in shaping English political culture. The English, European, Roman and scriptural pasts did much to shape early modern English political thinking, and particularly that of the educated classes. Central to the period were an emphasis on the value of reading history for governing elites, a canon of desired characteristics for historical writing and a hierarchy of values assigned to its various subgenres. Scholarly investigation of historiography has been extensive but has highlighted historiographical innovation rather than the conventional histories that were most widely read.


USES AND LESSONS OF HISTORY

History played a central part in the education of the political elite because it provided praiseworthy and reprehensible examples of past events to guide present moral judgment and political action. History provided vicarious experience resulting in the political prudence necessary to those serving the state. Historians and polemicists often invoked parallels from the past as guides to evaluating royal and other conduct. Rulers were compared to Solomon or Nimrod, Augustus or Tiberius, Edward the Confessor or Richard II, these invocations immediately conjuring positive or negative assessments.

There was little doubt about history’s capacity to teach. The Elizabethan humanist Thomas Wilson advised “Every good subject” to “compare the time past with the time present, and ever when [he] heareth Athens, or the

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