The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)

By Wootton, David | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)


Wootton, David, The Catholic Historical Review


General and Miscellaneous The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650). By Francis Oakley. [The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages, Vol. 3.] (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005. Pp. xviii, 415. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-300-19443-2.)

This is the third volume of a trilogy entitled "The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages." Oakley, who began publishing very nearly sixty years ago, has long been one of the most distinguished historians of ecclesiological and political thought in the long period, from Augustine to the English civil War, covered by this series. This present book stands alongside Brian Tierney's Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought (1982) in demonstrating the growth of modern constitutionalism, and even democratic radicalism, out of the conciliarist theories of the Councils of Constance and Basel.

As a general account of political thought in this three-hundred-year period the book is notable for its hostility to the arguments of Hans Baron and John Pocock and to all those who have joined them in stressing republicanism as the source of modern liberty. Quentin Skinner (with whose methodology Oakley has expressed forceful disagreement) plays a puzzling role here. Volume 2 of his Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) is rightly praised for grasping the importance of conciliarism, and Skinner's reading of Machiavelli as a republican is generally followed; but no work by Skinner after 1988 is cited, which means that Oakley fails to come to grips with works such as Liberty Before Liberalism (1997), which offer an alternative to the Baron/Pocock account of the central importance of republican theorizing. This omission is surely deliberate, and it is refreshing to read a book which takes a long view of the historiography, discussing histories of conciliarism from John N. Figgis to Constantin Fasolt, or even, indeed, from Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld to George Garnett. The bibliography is long and judicious, though my own essay on the origins of Civil War radicalism (1990) might have been of use in helping Oakley tackle the puzzling transition from the constitutionalism of a George Buchanan to the radical individualism of the Levellers. …

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