Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Charlotta Forss

By Cynthia Houng

Charlotta Forss is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University’s Historiska Institutionen. Forss’s article, “Mapping Atlantis: Olof Rudbeck and the Use of Maps in Early Modern Scholarship,” published in the April 2023 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, explores the role of maps in Rudbeck’s practices of knowledge making and scholarship.

Contributing editor Cynthia Houng interviewed Forss about how Rudbeck came to possess the expertise necessary to make and use maps, her current research on the history of saunas in Sweden, and her forthcoming book, Mapping the Idea of North.

Cynthia Houng: Let’s start with an easy question. Tell us about the beginnings of this project—how did you become interested in writing on Olof Rudbeck and his use of maps?

Charlotta Forss: I stumbled upon Rudbeck’s copy of Taflor, his compendium of maps and prints, at the Royal Library in Stockholm as I was working on another project. Rudbeck has made extensive emendations and commentary all over the maps, chronological tables, city plans, and prints of antiquities in Taflor. Ever since leafing through his book, which is enigmatic in its own right even without Rudbeck’s additions, I have been puzzling over early modern note taking on maps, looking for an opportunity to delve deeper into the ways Rudbeck’s work with maps shaped his research.

CH: Did Rudbeck continue working on medicine and anatomy after he began work on the Atlantica project in the 1670s? Do you see any traces of influence or cross pollination between Rudbeck’s interest in medicine and anatomy and his interest in history and geography?

CF: Rudbeck’s background in medicine can be seen through his language use and the way in which he conceptualized world geography as akin to anatomy. A striking example of this is the famous frontispiece of the Atlantica (reproduced in my article) where Rudbeck has depicted himself performing a sort of vivisection on the earth, peeling back the surface of the northern hemisphere to examine the historical geography that would prove to him that Sweden was the sunken continent Atlantis.

Though Rudbeck did not continue to pursue active medical research once the Atlantica began to take up more and more of his time, he did continue to hold a chair as professor of medicine at Uppsala University until 1691 (when he ceded the post to his son, Olof Rudbeck the Younger). He also had several side projects that related to medicine. For example, he began planting the first botanical garden in Sweden in 1655. Throughout his career, he taught students “in the garden” about the properties, medical and otherwise, of his large collection of plants.

CH: It is fascinating to see how Rudbeck’s interest in geography and in spatial ways of thinking influenced other aspects of his work. Botanical gardens are such an interesting way to spatialize botany and unfold botanical knowledge in space. Tangentially: North American readers interested in botany will recognize the Rudbeck name. Many familiar North American wildflowers–such as coneflowers and black-eyed Susans–belong to the genus Rudbeckia. Linnaeus chose this name to honor the Rudbecks for their contributions to botany.

CF: I agree, the botanical project is absolutely fascinating in its own right. This is also one among many instances where Rudbeck and his ideas figure in the background of later scientific developments. Linneaus was a student of Olof Rudbeck the Younger in Uppsala, who himself continued to develop the ideas first proposed in the Atlantica. It is a tantalizing example of scholarly generations.

CH: Your paper is largely concerned with how scholars used maps to construct knowledge, but I’d like to detour and ask, how did Rudbeck come to possess his expertise regarding maps and mapmaking? How did Rudbeck learn to draw? How did he acquire the skills to make maps? How did he develop his skills as a draftsman and cartographer?

CF: This is a question I have been thinking about quite a lot. There is plenty that we do not know about Rudbeck’s early life and education, but it is still possible to draw some conclusions both about Rudbeck’s experiences, and more generally about “geography” education in seventeenth-century Sweden, before the formulation of modern scientific disciplines. The latter is also a topic I addressed in my doctoral thesis, “The Old, the New and the Unknown: The Continents and the Making of Geographical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century Sweden.”

To begin with, it is likely that Rudbeck got some of his interest for inventive geographical presentation already at home. His father Johannes Rudbeckius was a professor of mathematics in Uppsala and later bishop in Västerås, in central Sweden, where he also founded the first gymnasium in the country. Johannes Rudbeckius made two world maps and several chorographic maps, all of which are oriented with south at the top of the map. This was a time period when geographic conventions, that we often take for granted, were not yet fully established; yet, Rudbeckius (or perhaps his publisher) still felt the need to comment on the design of one of the world maps that “One should not be surprised that this map is placed [in a way] that differs from common practice, since it is structured so as to show the situation of the world and specific places from the vantage point of us, the people in the North.” I would like to think that it was formative for Rudbeck to have a father who was both knowledgeable in mapmaking, keen to emphasize a northern worldview, and open to the idea that geographical presentations could vary in creative ways.

On a more general level, students were taught the basic elements of world geography in school as well as at university. This teaching happened both through lectures, and through instruction around maps and globes. Some of this education was tied to history and politics, where students were supposed to use geographical and chronological knowledge as “the two eyes of history,” helping them elucidate what had happened and where. Related to this, much of the education on geographical knowledge was tied to religious instruction. For example, knowing the ancient place names of modern localities could aid students in understanding events in the Bible. Finally, geography was also taught as part of mathematics. This included both descriptive geography and instruction about how to read and make maps. Outside of the university, and from the 1620s onwards, education in practical surveying techniques was organized through the newly instated Land Survey Office. The early modern Swedish state invested a good deal of manpower and resources into the mapping of the realm.

Rudbeck was a student at Uppsala University, and he also spent time in Leiden as part of his educational training and research. His biographer Gunnar Eriksson has noted that the time in Leiden was particularly important for Rudbeck’s later work on technical instruments (see The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1994). Perhaps Rudbeck also received instruction in mapmaking in Leiden? Regardless, he was considered to be a proficient mapmaker back home, receiving commissions from friends and acquaintances to make various maps.

CH: In your article, you discuss Rudbeck’s processes of annotating and commenting on both maps made by others and maps that he made himself. You also note that Rudbeck would sometimes redraw maps made by others, like “the Dutch map of the Argonauts’ travels” that he included in his Taflor (Uppsala, 1679). What do we know about Rudbeck’s personal library? Did he annotate all of the maps in his personal library, or only select maps? Did he annotate his books, as well? Did Rudbeck also keep commonplace books? Do similar notes show up in both places?

CF: Unfortunately, Rudbeck’s library is not preserved in its entirety. However, his distinctive handwriting appears in the margins of numerous books at Uppsala University Library. It seems that these were library copies that Rudbeck borrowed and “amended.” He also made an extensive commonplace book that is preserved at the Uppsala University Library, in addition to the folder of his maps and the copy of Taflor kept at the Royal Library in Stockholm.

This has allowed me to study Rudbeck’s note-taking techniques in some detail, and to compare how he used different kinds of media in his work. His central ideas do appear across the material, but the notations on his maps relate in particular to topics such as travel, land usage, and placenames. In my article, I argue that the format of the map tied this information to Sweden’s geography in important ways, that the alphabetically and topically organized commonplace book did not.

CH: Were Rudbeck’s practices of annotating and “revising” maps (by drawing new features or changing the location of features already extant on the map) commonly used by other early modern scholars interested in historical research?

CF: There is evidence that other early modern scholars annotated maps, and maps were definitely used in creative ways to present credible arguments, both in Sweden and elsewhere. In fact, it is clear that Rudbeck expected his audience to be familiar with this kind of scholarly practice, since he used maps (his own and those made by others) to build his argument throughout the Atlantica. Still, there is also a lot we do not yet know about the use of maps (in contrast to the production of maps) in early modern scholarship!

CH: Are other contemporary historians (or geographers, etc.) studying the use of maps by early modern scholars?

CF: There is a growing interest in the use of maps in scholarship, as exemplified in Phillip Koyoumjian’s article “Ownership and Use of Maps in England, 1660–1760.” Questions relating to map use more generally in society also crop up in numerous articles in volume 4 of The History of Cartography (Cartography in the European Enlightenment), edited by Matthew Edney and Mary Pedley.

CH: You write about the intimate connection between ideologies of statehood and empire and Rudbeck’s scholarship and writing, noting that Rudbeck’s “research agenda for the Atlantica” was “closely associated with the interests of the Swedish Empire.” How did Rudbeck first gain favor with Charles XI and other members of elite Swedish society? Did Rudbeck have any qualms regarding the conjunction between his Atlantica project and the Swedish imperial project of expansion and colonization? Was Rudbeck himself a proponent of the Swedish imperial project?  

CF: Rudbeck got the attention of the royal family already in his twenties when he exhibited his discoveries of the lymphatic system to Queen Kristina. Later on, he found a powerful patron and promoter in the nobleman, statesman, and chancellor of Uppsala University, Magnus Gabriel De La Gardie, who seems to have been instrumental in securing funding and favor for the Atlantica.

If one thing is certain, it is that Rudbeck did not have a humble personality prone to self-criticism. That is to say, I do not think he had any qualms about aligning his research with imperial ambition. However, he was well aware that his research was controversial. In addition, his style of writing is at times rather humorous. I have been pondering whether Rudbeck believed everything he argued for. This is a difficult question to answer without getting entangled in anachronistic reasoning though. I think historians of scholarship do best in taking what historical subjects said they believed at face value, not trying to second guess or attribute ideas to them that they did not, or even could not, have had. Still, I am not the first to wonder at Rudbeck’s style of expression. It is perhaps best exemplified in the words inscribed on his tombstone: “Imortalem Atlantica, mortalem hic cippus testatur,” which loosely translates to “The Atlantica testifies to his immortality, this stone to his mortality.” That is not the monument of a humble person.

CH: In a recent interview, you reveal that your current research deals with the topic of the sauna in early modern Scandinavia. Can you tell us more about this work? What sparked your interest in the sauna?

CF: Thank you for asking about this, early modern bathing is a topic that fascinates me. I have an ongoing research project on health and morality in the early modern Swedish sauna, or bathhouse, funded by the Swedish Research Council. For this project, I combine perspectives from the history of medicine, the history of the body, and social history to examine the sauna as a place of health and a place of socializing in early modern Swedish society. Evidence from medical advice books, travel accounts, journals, and court protocols show that people visited the sauna when they felt unwell, but also that this created moral tension around undress and secrecy.

CH: I am so ignorant about the history of the sauna, I just have to ask you some basic questions: How was the sauna invented? When did saunas become popular in Sweden?

CF: The practice of taking sweat baths has a very long tradition in northern Europe, with slightly different trajectories in the Nordic countries, Russia, Northern Germany, and Ireland. The oldest archaeological remains are several thousands of years old (or so archeologists tell me). Saunas were popular in Sweden (including Finland) in the medieval period, and they continued to remain popular throughout the eighteenth century. Public sweat baths in France and Germany, in contrast, seems to have closed earlier due to a combination of concerns surrounding both health and morality.

The use of newly digitized court records has been instrumental for my research. The fact that I can search large amounts of texts to find crimes committed in the sauna (and there are plenty) has been absolutely fascinating. For those interested to learn more, keep an eye out for my chapter in the forthcoming volume: Mari Eyice and Charlotta Forss eds., Health and Society in Early Modern Sweden (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming 2023).

CH: Are you working on any other projects that you would like to share with our readers?

CF: Apart from my forthcoming volume on health in early modern Sweden, I have handed in another manuscript to the publisher only this last month. It is a monograph, entitled Mapping the Idea of North (Oxford: Bodleian Library Publishing, forthcoming 2024) in which maps take center stage, and where Rudbeck makes a cameo, too. In the book, I explore how the idea of north has been portrayed in different historical and cultural contexts from antiquity to the early twentieth century, highlighting themes such as the importance of indigenous knowledge, exotification, and the difficulty of portraying ice on maps. There is also a chapter on the significance of polar bears, whales, and codfish on maps of the north, and I spend plenty of time on the early modern scholars who believed that the North Pole consisted of a whirlpool surrounded by rivers. Incidentally, this last was an idea that Rudbeck, in a rare role as the voice of reason, firmly rejected as based solely on fictitious conjecture.

CH: The North Pole as a whirlpool!! Can you tell us a little bit more about this? Like, how did this concept come into being?  

CF: The idea that there was a whirlpool at the North Pole was central to a fourteenth-century travel narrative entitled Inventio Fortunata that several influential early modern map and globe makers consulted, among the Gerhard Mercator, John Dee, and Martin Behaim. The anonymous traveler behind the narrative claimed to have witnessed a massive whirlpool that drew water into the earth, surrounded by four landmasses with rivers between them. In the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher’s rendition, this led to the conclusion that the water would be expelled again from the earth’s interior at the South Pole. Episodes like these made Mapping the Idea of North a fun book to write, and it gave me plenty of food for thought for reasoning about early modern imaginaries of the environment!

CH: Finally, what are you reading now? Give us three things—books, movies, music, etc.—that excite you right now.

CF: I have just finished reading a lovely novel by the Norwegian author Lars Mytting, called The Bell in the Lake. It is set in north Norway during the last decades of the nineteenth century and details the fate of a medieval Norwegian wooden stave church—an unusual move to say the least—as a means to tell a tale of the coming of modernity, love, friendship, and the relationship of an isolated community to the natural (and perhaps supernatural) world. It made me want to take a trip to rural Norway, though perhaps not during the winter.

It is always risky recommending things you have not finished yet, but I would still like to put in a plug for Babylon Berlin, a TV series set in Weimar Germany. An intriguing story line, good acting, great fashion, and fun interior design, paired with that eerie sense of foreboding that historical hindsight can give, makes this well worth a watch.

One last recent reading that has stayed with me is Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate (London: Scribner, 2018). It is a companion piece to Campbell’s collection of poems entitled Disko Bay (London: Enitharmon Press, 2016), and it details her travels through the Arctic in a low key, reflective way. There are plenty of travel books about the northernmost reaches of our globe, but this one manages both to evoke a sense of wonder, and to question the basis for that wonder.

CH: These are fantastic suggestions. I am excited to work my way through all of your recommendations. I think it will be refreshing—and delightful—to read about the Arctic North while living through a hot and humid New York summer.

Thank you, Charlotta, for your time today.

Cynthia Houng is a writer and editor based in New York City, and a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. Her dissertation project, tentatively titled The Art of Judgment and the Judgment of Art, investigates the development of rubrics of aesthetic and economic judgment and valuation in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. When she is not struggling to decipher mercantesca script, she writes about contemporary art and other aesthetic things. Follow her on Instagram: @cynthiahoung

Featured image: Olof Rudbeck surrounded by ancient authorities, dissecting geography to find a hidden history beneath. Olof Rudbeck, Et Nos Homines in Olof Rudbeck, Taflor (Uppsala, 1679).

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Natural Law and Christian Ethics: An Interview with Sarah Mortimer

by Alexander Collin

Sarah Mortimer is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She is especially interested in the relationship between political thought and religious ideas. Her work focuses on a period when new ideas about salvation, about political life and about what it means to be human began to be expressed; after Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus the intellectual, political and religious landscape looked very different. Her research looks at how people sought to understand, explain, and shape their world in this fascinating and complex period.

Alexander Collin is a contributing editor of the JHI Blog. He interviewed Mortimer about her recent JHI article Warfare, Christianity, and the Law of Nature and her ongoing research into theology and political thought in early modern Europe.

Alexander Collin: Let’s start with something relatively straightforward. How did you come to write this piece in the JHI? Where does it fit in your body of work as a whole and how does it relate to other things you’re working on at the moment? 

Sarah Mortimer: The immediate impetus for this piece was a conference organized by Ian Campbell as part of his “War and the Supernatural” project; the project is explicitly cross-confessional and that spurred me to thinking about how questions of warfare and natural law were discussed on different sides of the Reformation fault lines. For a long time, though, in fact ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve wondered how and why Christians see natural law as obligatory, how they understand its relationship to divine law and to the teaching of Christ.

This theme has been important in my recent work, including my book on early modern political thought (Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State), and I want to develop it further in the future. My next project is tentatively entitled “Virtue beyond Law: Transformations in Protestant ethics 1500–1700,” and that will be an opportunity to look in more detail at how early modern Protestants understand the duties of natural law and their relationship to Christian ethics. I’ve been very fortunate to find colleagues to discuss these questions with, including Ian and his team, and so it was great to be involved in the conference and then write up my paper for this cluster.

AC: Turning to the substance of the article: The distinction between what is licit and what is required is a major part of the debate over warfare that you discuss here. Is this a distinction which recurs in the philosophy and theology of this period? Are there other major arguments which turn on this structure? 

SM: I think this distinction is a helpful way for Thomist Catholics to make sense of the natural law, and to find a way to explain those acts which fall short of Christian perfection but which are not in themselves wrong. The basic structure of their argument is shaped in many ways by their theology of salvation, and by the Catholic idea that there are some acts which are supererogatory and meritorious, in other words acts that we do not have to do, that we are not obliged to, but which gain us merit if we do carry them out.

These are sometimes called Counsels of Perfection, and one good example that is often used is visiting the sick in time of plague. It’s not wrong to stay away from ill and contagious people, but going to visit them is an act of charity that goes beyond strict duty and which counts as a good work.

Of course, Luther will contest all of this—but that then raises important questions for Protestants about ethics, politics, and so on. I look at some of the consequences for political power in my recent book, and in an article on “Counsels of Perfection” but the ethical implications for both Protestants and Catholics remains to be fully explored.

AC: I got the sense that, in each of the philosophical positions on natural law, warfare, and Christianity that you discuss in this article, there is a mixture of a kind of academic, abstract discussion on the one hand, with a response to emerging political events on the other. For example, Cajetan is engaging with the church fathers, but he is also thinking about the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire; or Luther is considering this issue within his overall vision of Reform, but he is also responding to relations with the Ottomans.

To what extent should we read these writers as principally concerned with concrete political advice, versus to what extent is this more a moral and theological debate, in which practical applications are of secondary importance? Or would you reject that dichotomy altogether? 

SM: I’m glad to hear that you felt the debates were both academic and practical; for me, the most exciting aspect of the history of ideas is the way that it can help us understand how and why particular arguments were developed and deployed at particular times. And for me the story always includes the intellectual resources that were available, the agendas of the people involved, and the practical circumstances in which the debates were lived out.

One of the aims of my own work is to show how authors and thinkers were also people of flesh and blood, who lived in particular contexts that helped to shape their arguments. Cajetan is a good example of this. He is writing in the context of disputes in the Church, over the role of Council and Pope and over theologies of salvation, but he is also aware of the situation of Italian cities and the Papal States during this unsettled period of warfare in the Italian peninsular.

Meanwhile, if we turn to the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, he is keen to win over godly magistrates (like Edward VI of England) and to encourage them to commit to enacting the Kingdom of Christ as far as possible. For him, it is really important to show that war and coercion are legitimate, indeed often necessary, for Christian magistrates and that this is the true message of Scripture. Biblical commentaries become an extremely effective way of making this case—and particularly commentaries on passages that talk about kings and magistrates, and the warfare in which they engage.

AC: You identify part of what makes the Protestant view distinctive as their “agenda of unifying natural law and Christian ethics.” Why don’t Catholics also regard that unity as necessary? Or if they do, why are they less troubled by it than the Protestants? Is Baius moving in this direction with his insistence that grace and natural law are inseparable? 

SM: Thanks for highlighting this—I think that the Catholic view of natural law and Christian ethics is really subtle and complicated, and modern scholarship is just catching up with this. Part of the answer goes back to what I was saying about the Catholic position on merit and supererogation, but it is also connected to developing ecclesiologies and views of the Church. Catholic views on merit allowed theologians to claim that the Church controlled a “treasury of merit” which it could dispense to believers, hence the creation of indulgences which facilitated the transfer of this merit.

Also, the Catholic view of the authority of clergy and the value of monasticism encouraged a sense of hierarchy between lay and spiritual offices—and of the action appropriate to each. Rulers who were entangled in earthly affairs would, on this reading, be inferior to clergy who focused on spiritual activities and acts of charity.

Then, in the early sixteenth century, the Conciliarist claim that Church was like a commonwealth prompted men like Cajetan to insist instead that it was grounded in divine rather than natural law. Protestants—especially Luther—saw all these claims as connected, on the grounds that all of them elevated the Church and the clergy, but I think for the Catholics there is a process of debate through the sixteenth century about just what, if any, the connection might be between them.

Going back to your question: the Catholic position is of course designed to elevate the status of Christianity above nature and above merely civil and natural duties, while still taking the earthly and political world seriously. So I think it’s not so much that the Catholics are untroubled by the question of unity, but rather that they are trying to find a way to distinguish between the two that enables them to achieve their aims and defend their Church.

One important catalyst for debate about this is the question of excommunication, because not only do Catholics believe that the Pope can excommunicate rulers, many of them also believe that excommunication makes the ruler illegitimate in a Christian commonwealth and so the people are absolved of their duty towards an excommunicate (ex)ruler. At the end of the sixteenth century the great Catholic theologians Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez defend the power of the pope to depose rulers on the grounds that spiritual power is higher than civil authority, because the latter is based only in natural law (and human beings are called to higher, spiritual purposes and duties).

This view, though, is very much a Thomist Catholic view, and as our cluster shows the Thomists weren’t the only Catholics to reflect on these questions. As you note, Michael Baius took a different approach, and was quite hostile to the claim that we can think about natural law as somehow abstracted from grace. For him, the problem seems to have been that it encouraged people just to follow natural law—and natural law separate from grace didn’t seem very moral. Indeed, it offered an excuse for people to make compromises, for example with the Protestants in the Netherlands, and thus it devalued true Christianity.

I’ve become quite interested in these debates as a historian, but it might be worth pointing out that they are still live issues among Catholic theologians. Debate kicked off in earnest with the publication of Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel in 1946—he was a French theologian who felt that the distinction between nature and grace that many Catholics had inherited from the early modern period was problematic because it cut the Church and the state off from each other. In response, he wanted to show how men like Cajetan and Baius had in fact misunderstood the true meanings of Aquinas and Augustine. His concerns were very much those of a Catholic theologian, but historians can still learn from his writing.

AC: For the last question on individual authors, I’d like to turn to Grotius. You trace the development of his thinking on warfare, Christianity, and natural law. What is the best way for us to understand those changes? Do they come out of dialogue with other scholars? Do they come out of his personal experiences of the Netherlands wars in his lifetime? Some other source? 

SM: Grotius’s life was a very eventful one, but it seems to me that one of the key moments in it was his imprisonment in 1618 when Maurice of Nassau and the Calvinists took power in Holland. Prior to that, Grotius was willing to defend the power of the state over the Church, but after that he was much more keen to keep Christianity and civil authority separate. (He still thought that basic religious belief could be enforced, but not distinctively Christian principles.)

But Grotius also seems to have become increasingly interested in the ethical dimension to Christianity. Like many people around him, he thought that Christianity should make a difference to one’s actions and morals, and he also thought that it would be wrong to coerce people into acts of Christian charity. I think that he is probably picking up this way of seeing religion from other Dutch Christians, particularly the Remonstrants or Arminians, and certainly he is in touch with them.

These contacts also lead him to study the Bible more intensively, to write Annotations upon it—and he begins while he is in prison by studying and annotating the Gospels, the parts of the scripture where Jesus’s teaching is most clearly expressed. And Grotius starts to suggest that Jesus’s teaching offers a higher ethical standard than any natural law or philosophy. Then he wrestles with what this means for the legitimacy of warfare—as a good Dutch patriot he is positive about the Dutch Revolt, but sometimes unsure how to square this with Jesus’s ethics.

AC: Your early work dealt a lot with Socinian thought, but they don’t make an appearance in this article. Is there are distinctive Socinian perspective on these questions?

SM: Yes! The Socinians were famous in this period for their clear assertion of the difference between natural law and Christian ethics. They were pacifists, at least initially, on the grounds that Christ forbade warfare, but they also engaged quite extensively with some of the natural law arguments for the legitimacy of warfare, and that made them unusual. The Socinians wanted to show that while natural law arguments may be valid in their own terms, they will not get you to heaven; only if you follow Christ’s teaching will you be rewarded with eternal life.

Though their sometimes rather blunt claims didn’t win that many people over to them completely, they did stimulate a discussion about these issues which caught the attention of people across Europe. For example, we know that Grotius was reading at least some of their work, and vice versa. As a graduate student I came across these debates and realized that often what made Socinianism so interesting to its readers was this view of natural law and Christianity, and that I needed to study it in much more detail!

AC: Lastly, with any article, some amount of material gets left on the cutting room floor, is there anything you wanted to include here but couldn’t? A writer or book you didn’t discuss? A point of clarification or qualification that didn’t fit?

SM: In many ways this article is a kind of bridge between some of the work I’ve already done on natural law, politics, and Christianity, and the work I want to do next on virtue and law. It was also a chance to say a little more about authors like Cajetan and Baius who feature only very briefly in my recent book (though there is so much more to say about both. . .).

The article—and indeed the cluster—is also a reminder of how many important early modern writers are out there, on whom there has been so little work. I sometimes think it is a shame that scholars cluster around a small number of canonical thinkers, and I hope that by broadening the scope of our enquiry we will have a better sense of the ideas of this crucial period.

AC: What you are working on now/next, are there any forthcoming publications readers should look out for?

SM: My next project is about “Virtue beyond Law” in Protestant Europe. In it I explore changing ideas about the relationship between virtue and liberty in the early modern period, and what they might mean for political and religious authority. While we might assume that virtue requires the possibility of choice, of acting otherwise, early Protestants denied this, insisting that humans need not only God’s grace but also strong structures of law and punishment.

And yet, by the seventeenth century, a very different case was being made. Influential Protestant voices were now emphasizing individual liberty and virtue, insisting that human beings must choose to follow the superior and demanding ethics of Christ while denying that these ethics could or should be binding upon all.  I want to look at how and why these new ideas about community, Christianity, and ideas of virtue arose, and say something too about their significance for our ideas of liberty and morality. It’s still at an early stage, but I have enjoyed trying out some of the ideas in seminars.

More concretely, readers might look out for a new volume called Time, History, and Political Thought edited by John Robertson and due out from Cambridge UP later in 2023. I have an article in it on “Christian Time and the Commonwealth in Early Modern Political Thought,” which looks at the relationship between natural law arguments and Christianity as a story that takes place in time.

There is more in it about Grotius, and particularly the ways he uses Catholic natural law thinking but places it within a rather different theological and temporal framework, connected to his own distinctive sense of Christian history. As this might suggest, the more I think about natural law in the early modern period, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is! 

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of “The Decision” and to what extent it is a human universal.

Featured image: Luther in front of Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy of his 95 Theses, 1870 (oil on canvas) by Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with William Theiss

By Nicholas Barone

William Theiss is a PhD candidate in early modern European history at Princeton University. He received a BA in comparative literature from Yale University in 2016 and an MPhil in early modern history from the University of Cambridge in 2017. His previous scholarly work has appeared here in the JHI Blog and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

Theiss discussed his recent JHI article, “The Abbé d’Aubignac’s Homer and the Culture of the Street in Seventeenth-Century Paris,” published in January 2023, with contributing editor Nick Barone. 

Nick Barone: Let’s begin with some basic empirical context. Who was François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac? What was his intellectual and educational background?

William Theiss: Hédelin was a French priest who lived from 1604 to 1676, and he took the name d’Aubignac after the property where he was a cleric. But although this property was not in Paris, and although he himself grew up in the provinces, he was the consummate Parisian. He was one of those pre-Revolutionary abbés who were religious in name, but in fact dedicated themselves to erudition or literature. Being the tutor to the nephew of the Cardinal Richelieu, even though this nephew died in a naval battle, put d’Aubignac at the center of arguably the first great age in Parisian literature, the so-called classical age, even though d’Aubignac’s own relationship to this milieu was as of a parasite and an increasingly unpopular gadfly. He wrote notorious screeds against the poet Corneille, and since Corneille was and remains a canonical French author, d’Aubignac comes across as a ridiculous and petty figure. I should also say that unlike many of the other abbés of the Academie Française, d’Aubignac was not especially erudite—ironically for an innovative scholar of Homer, he probably didn’t know much Greek.

I came across d’Aubignac because his book Conjectures académiques, ou Dissertation sur l’Iliade wound up on my generals exam reading list on Greek philology when I was in my second year of graduate school, advised by Joshua Billings. This is a speech that d’Aubignac delivered in the 1660s toward the end of his life, first published long after his death in 1715. There was no English translation, but there are plenty of French editions, so I picked it up from the library and was immediately transfixed. For one thing, the book is hilarious. But for another, it seemed true: it seemed to lay out a theory of the oral transmission of Homeric poetry that is somehow not so different from what some scholars believe today, and yet it did so from a polemic against the poem and a condemnation of it. So all I had at first was the pleasure of spending time with d’Aubignac on the page, and the question of where this wild book came from.

NB: You deftly toggle between different methodological registers, preoccupations, and approaches in this article—contextualist intellectual history, Darntonian cultural history, urban studies, Bourdeiuan social theory, the history of classical reception, the politics of reading and translation. How did you arrive at this theoretical syncretism? What questions initially animated your project? Put more vulgarly, who were your primary influences in drafting this article? 

WT: Thank you! I should say that this article has no new archival discoveries, and it does not unearth anything that is not widely available in the library. Instead, the point is to bring together two worlds of scholarship that have each yielded important results but have not spoken much to each other. One the one hand, there is the urban history of Paris, which was the European city par excellence even before Hausmann’s famous modernizing project, as scholars such as Hilary BallonJoan DeJean, and Nicholas Hammond have shown, among others. On the other hand, there’s the history of classical scholarship, which has been investigating for a long time the cultural history of the reception of ancient texts and especially Homer—I mean scholars such as Anthony GraftonGlenn MostLuigi Ferreri, and Kirsti Simonsuuri. So when d’Aubignac writes, We know there was no Homer because of the way that Parisian street-performers sing on the Pont Neuf, I thought, wait a minute: what? What did d’Aubignac see on the streets of Paris that led him to make this absurd claim? To answer your question, d’Aubignac was the original toggler, the person who connected the ethnography of Parisian street life, almost like a seventeenth-century Catholic Walter Benjamin, with a new social theory of the transmission of culture across class and a new theory of Homer.

NB: Can you walk us through the state of Homeric criticism before Hédelin’s interventions? From what prior intellectual labors did the “Homeric Question” emerge?

WT: I can try. The criticism of Homer was alive and well in antiquity, including in Plato’s Athens, where he complained about the singers who were singing Homeric verse for money. At the library of Alexandria, in the Hellenistic period, ancient critics developed what we call textual criticism in order to set the definitive text of Homer for the first time. Rumors also swirled in antiquity that perhaps Homer had sung rather than written his poetry and that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus had had to gather the different verse fragments centuries after they were performed, and as Tania Demetriou has shown, the best Renaissance scholars, including Isaac Casaubon, had perked up their ears at comments like this, and begun to wonder whether Homer was different from all other poets and all other texts. They invented the special aura around Homer that persists to this day. 

All of this debate was a little above d’Aubignac’s head, and he was not familiar with all of it. Instead, his criticism of Homer came more in our sense of the word criticism: was Homer a good poet? Was the Iliad a good book? D’Aubignac’s heresy was to say, not even close. The book is disorganized, repetitive, with too many battles and no unified plot, and it’s boring. It violates every principle of classical poetics. But the genius of his Academic Conjectures was to say that the book is so bad that it could not have been written by a single author. Instead, all of its flaws are explained by its having been transmitted orally by different poets over a long period and then “stitched” together. This is how he got from the terribleness to the non-existence of Homer.

NB: In an elegant and provocative condensation of your argument on 87, you write, “The death of Homer began with the construction of a bridge.” What modes of sociability did the Pont Neuf instantiate? How do you understand the relationship between new forms of public social intercourse, aesthetic perception, and what you call the “intense experimentation with literary form” that characterized this period? 

WT: Most medieval and early modern European bridges were piled high with shops and houses. They were claustrophobic and built up, so that a pedestrian on a European bridge before the seventeenth century would probably not be able to see the water, whether the Seine, the Danube, the Rhine, or the Thames. The London Bridge is a prime example of such a bridge, which had shops and houses until it was destroyed and rebuilt in the Fire of London in the late seventeenth century. The Pont Neuf in Paris was perhaps the first bridge in European history to be consciously designed with sidewalks and viewing turrets instead of buildings—for a while, sidewalks themselves or banquettes were actually synonymous with the Pont Neuf—and this had profound consequences for the way that people interacted with space in Paris. First, it was beautiful, and it made the Seine beautiful. Second, everybody wanted to gather there, to walk from bank to bank or to the Île de la Cité. Finally, the sidewalks let the bridge become the arena for musical and dramatic performance, the same way that any public square in any major city does today. These players and singers were cultural entrepreneurs, and their experiments were what gave d’Aubignac the idea of using the Parisian streetscape to argue for the non-existence of Homer. 

NB: How did the economic and cultural stratification of Paris during this time shape d’Aubignac’s “social theory of Homeric poetry”? On what understanding of cultural transmission and interclass relations did such a theory rest? How did “the culture of the street” alter, reconfigure, or render visible the symbolic function of class difference in establishing a literary work’s provenance and quality?

WT: With other aristocrats, d’Aubignac found the bridge scene to be amusing and diverting but ultimately worthless. In fact, for him, the worthlessness of Parisian street culture matched only the worthlessness of Homeric poetry. This was one of the keys to his theoretical innovation. Our vision of Parisian cultural history is of course different, and we have learned, partially thanks to Robert Darnton, to regard the literary underclass of Paris as the hero of Enlightenment intellectual history. So d’Aubignac observed correctly—and part of my article tries to verify this—that singers on the Pont Neuf, especially the blind performer Philippot le Savoyard, sang famous airs de cour composed by Lully or other arias that had been heard first in Versailles. But when d’Aubignac heard the Pont Neuf singers performing well-known songs, he could not regard them as authors, because “authors” were famous poets who wrote for the stage of Richelieu. He regarded them instead as beggars. By contrast, when Milman Parry studied oral poetry in Yugoslavia in the twentieth century, he easily saw that the rural performers he recorded on his recording machines were authors of the deepest and most ingenious creativity. That’s why, to put it a little too simply, d’Aubignac and Parry arrived at almost the same theory of the oral transmission of Homer, but from completely opposite perspectives, one from the contempt for street culture and the other from admiration. And that’s why Homer exists more for Parry than for d’Aubignac. 

NB: The blind street-savant Philippot le Savoyard is one of the more delightfully aberrant characters who populate your story, and his dialogic encounters with Homer, plebeian and court culture, and the semiotic tapestry of the new Parisian cityscape provide a rich analytic aperture through which to view how d’Aubignac posed and grappled with the Homeric question. Can you say a bit more about Philippot––the archival traces he left, the different ways in which he was “read,” and the cultural repertoire from which he drew? Did you encounter him first through d’Aubignac? 

WT: Curiously, and probably on purpose, d’Aubignac never mentions Philippot in his Conjectures académiques. But after I encountered Philippot in the literature on Parisian street life in the seventeenth century, it became clear that d’Aubignac’s book is to a large extent about him. Philippot says that he was also the son of a singer, and presumably, based on the nickname, he came from Savoy. He wasn’t just active on the Pont Neuf in the 1640s and 1650s: to a large extent, he defined it, and he was the bridge’s great impresario. We know that he would sing songs in the company of a boy or several boys, who would help attract a crowd, and that he would play the hurdy-gurdy, which is like a cranked violin. There are a few valuable documents that let us reconstruct the world of Philippot: there is a beautiful painting in Philadelphia of Philippot leading a kind of bacchic procession; there are two books of his songs, which were printed on cheap paper at the base of the Pont Neuf, and which have never been critically edited or translated; and there is a kind of interview he supposedly gave to another seventeenth-century poet, Charles Coypeau. Immersing myself in these, I realized that Philippot was even more fascinating than d’Aubignac. In every way, he operated a kind of burlesque, making fun of himself, of his audience, of the city of Paris, and of the entire poetic tradition. Moreover, he actually claimed himself, in one of his songs, that he was like Homer, because he and Homer both drank themselves blind and were condemned to sing from door to door in exchange for money. So Philippot was actually Homer and Homeric theorist in one. And d’Aubignac clearly lifted his own theory of Homeric song from Philippot, a prospect that creates a dizzying hall of mirrors. Who was the author of the theory that Homer was not the author of the poems ascribed to him? The only possible answer is: Paris.

NB: A dialectic between intellectual, imaginative, and physical labor unfolds in this account, particularly in your discussion of blindness (I am reminded also that John Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost most of his sight through dictating his verse to his daughter, Deborah). How did d’Aubignac interpret the relationship between different sensorial and perceptual capacities—and the role of the body in aesthetic labor more broadly? 

WT: I’m so glad you mentioned Milton, because Milton and Philippot le Savoyard were contemporaries, each was a blind poet, and each was self-consciously competing for the mantle of Homer. Milton did this by revering Homer and nobly claiming for himself the title of the skilled epic poet. Philippot did this by dragging Homer down into the street with him and by impugning Homer as a drunk beggar. But d’Aubignac had his own experience of profane performance, or bodily performance, which he had been pondering for decades by the time he encountered Philippot on the Pont Neuf and devised his Homeric theory. And here lies the importance of Loudun. In the 1630s, d’Aubignac went to Loudun to investigate the notorious possessions of Ursuline nuns there, possessions that were the subject of a great book by Michel de Certeau. D’Aubignac argued that not only were the possessions a forgery, but that he had seen bodies perform more elaborate contortions in the circuses and theaters of Paris, where, if the nuns performed, they would be applauded. This is what your question gets at by asking about the role of the body. Singing bodies and performing bodies were a spectacle in Paris and d’Aubignac used them to banish demons and gods, including Homer.

NB: What are you working on right now? How might your research on d’Aubignac relate to your dissertation work—however elliptically—on local village manuscript preservation and the development of recognizably modern practices of state administration in central Europe? 

WT: I imagined working on this article as an escape from my dissertation, which everybody needs. Unconsciously there probably were some underlying connections. In the most abstract terms, my other research is about embedded observers and anthropologists in otherwise inaccessible premodern communities, whether the oral culture of the Paris underground or Central European rural society. My dissertation is about the history of writing in the second scenario and the transition from the early modern to the modern period. 

Nick Barone is a  third-year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton, specializing in modern Britain and Europe. His research focuses on the social, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of political apathy in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, with an eye towards homologous developments on the continent. He has secondary interests in the comparative history of European statecraft, post-Kantian philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of the family. Nick graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 2019 with a B.A. in English and History. He has also completed graduate work at Brown University in literary studies.

Featured image: Hendrick Mommers, Vue de Paris et de la Seine, prise du milieu du Pont- Neuf. A droite, le palais du Louvre, 1665/6. Photo copyright 2010, RMNGrand Palais (Musée du Louvre), Stéphane Maréchalle.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Iberian Theories of Empire: An Interview with Giuseppe Marcocci

By Elsa Costa

Giuseppe Marcocci is an Official Fellow and Lecturer in History at Exeter College and Associate Professor in Iberian History (European and Extra-European, 1450–1800) at the University of Oxford. His research has mostly focused on religious history and the history of political culture. He has written on conversion and persecution of religious minorities in the Iberian kingdoms and their overseas possessions, Spanish and Portuguese debates over race and slavery, as well as the Iberian theories of empire and colonial authority across the Iberian globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His latest book The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2020) reconstructs the transformation of historical writing in the age of exploration.

Marcocci spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Iberian Theories of Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (volume 83, issue 4).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this wonderful article, which encouraged me to question my assumptions about intellectual interchange between Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century. In my own work I highlight the permeability of the barrier between what we normally conceive of as Renaissance humanism and what we call Spanish scholasticism, but reading this piece I became a little more aware of the extent to which this is a pan-Iberian story. I want to start with a very ambitious question. By the time of Vitoria, as you explain, the tendency is for the Portuguese to believe in the Pope’s real power to adjudicate international disputes, while Vitoria famously asserts that the papacy only has religious power. This comes in the wake of enormous concessions given to Spain and Portugal by a relatively strong, pre-reformation papacy—the bulls Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex for Portugal in the 1450s, and the pase regio in the Americas granted to Spain between 1493 and 1508. How is it that the Portuguese become so content with the Pope’s ability to make these huge grants by personal fiat, while Vitoria is uncomfortable with personal mediation and insists on staying within the impersonal (and more secular) realm of natural law? Is this strictly a matter of territorial dispute, i.e., the Portuguese attachment to their alleged papal mandate to exercise maritime control of Africa, Asia, and Brazil? 

Giuseppe Marcocci: Thank you very much for this question, Elsa. Should we reduce Portuguese theories of empire to a matter of mere political interest, and therefore see them as less relevant or sophisticated than the Spanish? I don’t think so. True, the Portuguese empire was relatively weak. It had to fight for its survival almost from the start, but it ended up being the early modern empire that lasted longer than any other, which I believe also depended on ideological factors. The assumption that only great empires have real imperial ideologies is wrong.

The possibility of considering together two rather dissimilar empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese is what makes the perspective that you call “pan-Iberian” so productive. It is a perspective that invites us to do something other than comparative history. Its origin can be traced back to the debate over global history and connected history that took place at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris about twenty years ago. Books like Serge Gruzinski’s Les quatre parties du monde (2004), or Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s articles on the connected histories of the Iberian empires in the American Historical Review (2007), have changed the field, or at least the rhetoric of the field. There is some excellent work on the so-called “Iberian world”––which is better understood as a mosaic than in flat binary terms in any case. One has only to think of historians like Fernando Bouza, Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, or Stuart Schwartz, to name a few. Too often, nonetheless, the word “Iberian” in the title of an article or a volume disappointingly corresponds to an exercise in juxtaposition or, even worse, assuming excessive uniformity. Nor is the idea of an “Iberian world” unproblematic. While scholars grapple with the significant fact that at some point in the sixteenth century, areas as distant as Central and South America, the Iberian Peninsula and various other territories in Europe including large part of Italy, coastal outposts and strips of land in North, West and Southeast Africa, the Persian Gulf, Western India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and South China came to participate in aspects of Iberian culture, they may easily gloss over local histories. As ethnohistorians show for Colonial Latin America, indigenous sources can allow us to rewrite the history of the Spanish conquest. Therefore, it is important that we do not understand the notion of “Iberian” as self-sufficient, as if studying what the Spaniards and the Portuguese did and said is all that matters.

In my book The Globe on Paper (2020), which is about histories of the world written in Renaissance Europe and the Americas, I argue that we should listen more carefully to the conversations that occurred across cultural, linguistic, and political borders in the early modern world. This also applies to theories of empire. Imperial ideologies have been the subject of much comparative analysis since Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World (1995), but the depth of their mutual interaction and exchange is still rarely considered, especially when it comes to early modern European empires. Surprisingly enough, this is particularly true in the case of Spain and Portugal. We have a lot in common here, such as the Catholic political thought and the legacy of the Roman imperial tradition. We have writings and thinkers who moved across the two sides, and well beyond the metropolitan centers. There was a large conversation going on, partly encouraged by religious orders and their global networks, and of course, the union of the crowns under the same Habsburg monarchs between 1580 and 1640 was also important. But as you rightly point out, there were also considerable points of divergence between Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire.

To come to the time of Vitoria, clearly imperial debates did not occur in mid-air. Charles V’s annoyance at papal interference in his overseas dominions, especially after the falls of the Aztec and Inca polities dramatically reconfigured the Spanish enterprise in America, was not unrelated to his invitation to Vitoria to deliver public lectures on the rights of indigenous people in Salamanca. But we would have a very poor understanding of what was going on if we reduced Vitoria’s rejection of the papal power to grant a Christian ruler the right to conquer lands inhabited by non-Christians to an attempt to please Charles V. The same would go if one argued that the Portuguese attachment to mid-fifteenth-century papal diplomas was merely driven by the aim to defend an advantageous position respect to European competitors. The Portuguese perfectly knew that papal power was a double-edged sword. They had learned it after Columbus’s return from the first journey to the Caribbean. It was no chance that the crisis triggered by Alexander VI’s concessions to Ferdinand and Isabella was resolved autonomously by the two monarchies with the Treaty of Tordesillas.

After 1494, both Iberian sides shared the principle that the global order established at Tordesillas was inviolable and its exact definition was a matter to be decided between them. How to achieve this in relation to the papacy was another issue. Of course, individual thinkers were important. By the time of Vitoria, ideological lines as regards the Portuguese empire were largely dictated by traditionalist theologians, among whom stood out Pedro Margalho, curiously enough the main competitor of Vitoria for the main chair in Theology in Salamanca a few years earlier. Even on a personal level, there was something deeply Iberian in the distinct directions taken by Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire in 1530s. But there is another way to look at things. It has to do with law. The supremacy that was acknowledged to Roman imperial law in Spain, as a result of the Castilian tradition of the Siete Partidas and the very fact that Charles V was also the Holy Roman Emperor, placed Vitoria in a context that encouraged the recovery of natural rights discourse in a way that Canon law, which had the highest priority in case of controversy in Portugal and obviously could not overlook papacy, would never do. Hence, the importance that we reflect on the strong jurisdictionalism that distinguished Portuguese theories of empire. It alerts us to their rich and complex nature. For instance, the exercise of interpretation of papal diplomas as carried out by the royal council called Mesa da Consciência, established in 1532, was certainly generative of creative thinking.

More generally, what I tried to show in the article is that when one looks at the circulation of people and ideas, it becomes difficult to say what exactly is Spanish or Portuguese in Iberian theories of empire. At first, this may seem an exaggeration. But if we think of imperial ideology as a fluid debate instead of a rigid doctrine, we cannot disregard that not infrequently important Spanish thinkers lived for long time in Portugal and spoke and wrote about the Portuguese empire, as was the case with Monzón or the Doctor Navarrus (but also famous Jesuits such as Molina or Suárez, who were professors in Coimbra). There were also Portuguese jurists who were active in territories of the Spanish monarchy, such as Afonso Álvares Guerreiro in Naples or Serafim de Freitas in Valladolid. And of course, our knowledge is limited by the fact that there were many levels of discourse as well as self-censorship. No one appeared to follow Vitoria’s ideas in mid sixteenth-century Portugal, which clashed with an official line that was content with papal diplomas, but his teaching circulated through manuscripts. The Spanish Martín de Ledesma, one of his disciples, held the main chair of Theology in Coimbra. Vitoria’s ideas were presumably discussed in some of his lectures. Certainly, they are referenced in handwritten commentaries by Portuguese theologians from the second half of the sixteenth century. But even when it became more accepted to quote and even use Vitoria’s arguments, roughly around 1570s, there were still theologians in Portugal who approved his positions in their personal notes but refuted them in their published work.

Please forgive the very long response. That is what happens when you ask very ambitious questions! I will be more brief in my next answers.

EC: My second question is closely related to my first. In your discussion of Afonso Álvares Guerreiro, you mention how the Portuguese papalist position becomes associated with reviving medieval positions which either refuse to ascribe any legitimacy whatsoever to pagan polities, or which place very low barriers to just war against pagan polities. In your perception, does this association between ultramontanism and Christian expansionism go back to the Crusades (which can be interpreted partly as a bid to keep peace among Europeans by lowering the barriers to war outside Europe), or does it emerge specifically out of the context of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese maritime activity, along with the struggle to remain independent from Spain?

GM: There has been much debate over the legal framework that emerged in association with the Crusades and its importance for European exploration. I think that specific aspects of its legacy can be traced in some papal diplomas concerning Iberian penetration into North Africa, or in the justification of the right to reduce persons of African descent to perpetual slavery, which was granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century. However, I tend to be skeptical about interpretations that emphasize direct continuity between medieval confrontation with Muslims, including the fragmented process that some historians still call Reconquista, and the cultural background to early modern Iberian imperialism. This is not to deny that medieval theories matter when it comes to your question about the right to wage war against non-Christian polities in the context of Spanish or Portuguese theories of empire. James Muldoon is the scholar who probably has the most accurate and influential work on this topic. It seems to me that what Guerreiro was concerned with is the thirteenth-century dispute over papal power. The position that became more popular and was still prevailing among early modern Iberian thinkers, was a moderate one, if still quite bellicose. It was usually ascribed to Pope Innocent IV, who argued that the Vicar of Christ had only indirect power over those who lived outside the Christian world and could not deprive them from their right to self-government and freedom only because they were not Christians––or were “pagans,” if you prefer to use the language of the sources. Guerreiro adhered to a more aggressive interpretation, which was promoted by Cardinal Hostiensis and the likes, according to whom it was always licit to wage war against non-Christians for the sole reasons that they were not Christians. The same position had been held in fourteenth-century Portugal by Alvarus Pelagius, a Franciscan friar from Galicia whose writings had a few editions between the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. However different, both doctrines of papal power significantly expanded the pontiff’s right to promote military action against non-Christians beyond Muslims. Therefore, these doctrines were of particular interest during the early age of European exploration.

I should clarify that the fact that the Portuguese recognized papal authority as a valid source of legitimacy for their empire is not the same thing as saying that they endorsed the doctrine of direct papal power over non-Christians. The diplomas that were granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century were based on an ingenious reinterpretation of the doctrine of indirect power according to which the pope had the right to entrust a Christian prince with sending armies against non-Christians who infringed natural law. Medieval theories were seen as repertoires of arguments that could always been reused and transformed for specific needs. Guerreiro was a supporter of the doctrine of direct papal power and, although he was Portuguese, he lived in Naples and did not refer to the Portuguese empire in his writings. Conversely, Martín de Azpilcueta, better known as Doctor Navarrus, was a Spanish canon lawyer who taught and wrote against such doctrines when he was professor in Coimbra. He made reference to its recent use to justify conquests in the Americas, although rather vaguely. His preference was for the doctrine of indirect papal. Navarrus coincided with the official Portuguese imperial ideology on this point. It is worth recalling, nonetheless that in the end the doctrine of indirect papal power complemented the theory of just war, which was broadly interpreted and still used extensively in early eighteenth-century Brazil to enslave indigenous people.

EC: The debate over Machiavelli’s claims about Roman religion in the Discourses on Livy is one which was very common in sixteenth-century Iberia. Yet the way in which it maps to the debate over the legitimacy of pagan polities and the right of conquest is ambiguous. On the one hand, if Roman religion was completely illegitimate and did not in any sense secure God’s favor, this would seem to map to the Portuguese papalist argument that pagan polities have little essential legitimacy. On the other hand, the argument that pursuing “worldly glory” is not such a bad thing, quietly paraphrased from Machiavelli, frequently shows up in encomia for Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion (and in mirrors for princes in general). Can you speak a little more about why you chose to open with this particular debate?

GM: With pleasure. In the first place, I wanted to show that there was a moment in which even when it came to religion, Iberian theories of empire could still go beyond scholasticism. The debate over Machiavelli and his praise of the civic religion of the ancient Romans as opposed to Christianity with respect to encouraging military valor, was very intense in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It came well before the strong interest in The Prince, which is evident in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Jesuit writers and their dissimulative strategies. Machiavelli’s position in the Discourses on Livy hit a raw nerve. It was also because of the insinuation that the true heirs of the Roman soldiers were the Turks. This was highly problematic from the point of view of Catholic empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese. Why did God permit the Roman empire to become so great? Why was something similar happening again with the Ottomans? It was a truly Iberian debate, in which many famous humanists engaged, from the Spanish Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda to the Portuguese João de Barros. Some of them harshly condemned Machiavelli as an author who favored pagans and Muslims, others were captivated by his idea of a link between religion and military value and endeavored to reconcile his argument with a Christian perspective. Several scholars have explored this dispute over Machiavelli since Adriano Prosperi highlighted its importance in an article from the late 1970s. In a volume that Lucio Biasiori and I edited in 2018, the mid sixteenth-century Iberian discussion is presented as being part of a much deeper and ambivalent interaction between the reception of Machiavelli and the perception of the Islamic world in early modern Europe and beyond. But what mostly interests me in the clash between Monzón and Azpilcueta in the 1540s, to which I specifically refer in my article, is that this debate between two Spanish thinkers taking place in Portugal helps us understand why official attitudes towards Machiavelli deteriorated so rapidly there unlike in Spain, whose inhabitants continued to be allowed to read his writings, including the Discourses on Livy, for another forty years or so.

The other reason that I decided to open my article with this episode is that it demonstrates that Iberian theories of empire were not static. Not only did they provide a set of arguments to be used against rival empires, but imperial ideologies themselves were the outcome of internal conflicts and a periodic redefinition of power relations among different thinkers. For long time, Catholic political thought and the Roman imperial tradition were the two main sources of inspiration for Iberian theories of empires, but there was a clear hierarchy. After roughly the mid-sixteenth century, classical culture could remain a point of reference only if purged from its most dangerous elements, whose risks Machiavelli exemplified. The hegemony of scholastic theology was obtained through episodes such as the public exposure of Monzón’s conciliatory approach toward the Discourses on Livy. Obviously, things changed over and over again. Historians of Iberian imperial ideologies and cultures, nonetheless, may show greater awareness of these tensions and anxieties as well as the domestication that the Roman imperial tradition went through over the course of time. The point is analyzed in works that are milestones in the field, such as Marie Tanner’s The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (1993), and Sabine MacCormack’s On the Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (2007). I also believe that there is still a lot to learn from authors such as Marcel Bataillon or, on a less compelling intellectual level, José Sebastião da Silva Dias.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: Baptism of Philip II (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Ephemeral Documents and Enduring Debates: An Interview with Daniel Blank

By Nuala P. Caomhánach

Daniel Blank is Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature, 1500–1700 at Durham University. His main research interests include Shakespeare, early modern drama, and theater history, as well as the intellectual culture and classical heritage of the early modern period. His first monograph, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press.

Blank spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about his recent article “Debating Drama in the Early Modern University: John Case, Aristotle’s Politics, and a Previously Unknown Oxford Disputation,” which appears in JHI 83.3.


Nuala P. Caomhánach: By focusing on a university student, you argue that Aristotle’s Politics was more influential in antitheatrical discourses than scholars have allowed. You show the impact that these controversies had by stating “[Edmund] Leigh’s notebook is a local document with universal implications” (405). What avenues does the university as a site of analysis in the early modern period open up for understanding the reception, dissemination, and longevity of debates about theatrical performance?

Daniel Blank: That’s a great question. One of the things I aim to show is that the universities had their own culture of antitheatricalism. My article refers to the famous 1590s dispute between John Rainolds and William Gager—an important episode not only in the history of debates about theatrical performance but also in the history of Oxford, when two prominent university figures clashed over the issue of student drama. As Leigh’s notebook attests, however, these academic debates were by no means limited to that episode: since Leigh seems to have been writing sometime at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we gain insight into how that quarrel continued to reverberate through the university sphere. And this is where the university becomes so important as an institution, as a coherent site whose members are interacting with each other in both formal and informal contexts. The fact that Leigh was Rainolds’s student allows us to think about how these debates might have seeped into the university’s pedagogical interactions. In Leigh’s notes we see him engaging with both Rainolds and John Case, two members of Oxford who had decades earlier found themselves on opposite sides of the theatrical question. So Leigh’s own views were shaped by his Oxford predecessors, and he himself may then have shaped the debate further—if indeed he broadcast his own antitheatrical views in the disputation that his notes suggest he was preparing to give.

But the wider impact of these institutional debates is also significant. They ultimately extended beyond the academic sphere, due largely to the publication of the correspondence between Rainolds and Gager under the title Th’overthrow of stage-playes in 1599. As I discuss at greater length in my forthcoming book, Th’overthrow had a significant impact far beyond the academic sphere (as did the student plays to which Rainolds objected). So focusing on the university allows us both to see the specific flavor of antitheatricalism that arose there and to understand better its engagement with, as well as its effect on, broader cultural discourses. Leigh’s notes illustrate this dual purpose: they bring the university scene into clearer view, but the discussion of the Politics in particular has much broader implications for the relationship between Aristotle and antitheatricalism.

NC: Your close reading of Leigh’s university notebook offers the reader an engrossing and exhilarating adventure through impressive sleuthing and deep archival analysis to understand the significance of our understanding of the debates over theatrical performance. What are the challenges of working with material from the early modern period? Are there any caveats with using one document for broader arguments?

DB: One of the main challenges is access to the archives where much of this kind of material can be found. I was fortunate to be doing a year of archival research in England when this manuscript first came to my attention, but it can be very difficult to view early modern documents in person, especially when they’re held in a repository across the globe. There are other challenges as well. Much of the business of the early modern universities was conducted in Latin, so you have to be able to overcome that linguistic barrier; and documents like student notebooks only survive in rare instances. Like university plays, the fact that many of these documents are in Latin and that most exist only in manuscript has contributed to their obscurity.

Handwriting can be another issue when dealing with materials from the period. Leigh’s notebook is actually quite readable by early modern standards, but he does seem to be writing in haste on the pages concerned with theatrical performance, and he’s liberal in his use of abbreviations and contractions—so it can still be difficult to decipher. And it’s important to get the transcription exactly right, or as close to it as possible: especially with such a brief passage, every word is necessary to fully grasp the meaning.

You raise an excellent point, too, about using a single document to make a broader argument. As I say in my article, it’s important not to extrapolate too far from one student notebook, illuminating as it might be. But at the same time, it is true that most archival work from the premodern period involves some degree of extrapolation. An archive like this one is never going to be complete, especially when dealing with ephemeral documents from the early modern university. You’re never going to have everything. The best you can do is to put together something like a complete picture from the relatively few puzzle pieces that remain. And Leigh’s notebook is a very important piece.

NC: Theatrical performance and concerns over morality go hand-in-hand during this period as your historical actors (no pun intended) worry over the impact on the most impressionable in society—young men. Comedy and obscenity are top of the list over fears of the youth slipping into “idleness,” “lustfulness,” and other “evil behavior.” In reading your article, it was easy to think about the current climate over the role of the state, for example, pedagogy and content in school classrooms, cancel culture in comedy, and disinformation during epidemics. In what ways do the debates over theatrical performance reflect the concerns over how to create, govern, and control the ideal state, and more importantly, who gets to decide what is required, and what needs to be “driven out of a well-governed commonwealth” (402)?

DB: It’s an important question, and I agree: it’s difficult not to draw those parallels, especially since one of the words that comes up again and again in these early modern discourses is “obscenity”—the same word that has been frequently deployed in the recent spate of book bans in schools and libraries (which you allude to and which, as a literature scholar, I find especially disturbing). In the early modern period, theatrical performance is merely one of the “obscene” activities to which figures like John Rainolds are objecting. I think these debates are absolutely about authority and control, but the context varies: for Rainolds, it’s about the preservation of an institution—he wants a university in which students aren’t exposed to the “evils” he perceives so they can continue into the clergy uncorrupted. For John Case, some theatrical performances (those put on by professional players) are “obscene,” but others (those put on by academics) are “dignified”; in his notebook, Leigh picks up on Case’s description of the former. On the national level, of course, the Puritans looked to outlaw theatrical performance as one facet in creating an “ideal state” that conformed to their own worldview. And I think it’s vital to recognize that, whether we’re talking about early modern antitheatricalism or modern book bans, the rhetoric is often the same: censors speak of “protecting” children from anything that might disrupt the specific identities that conservative ideologues deem acceptable.

But it is telling that, even going back to ancient Greece, antitheatricalism has often been about—or appeared in contexts concerning—something much broader than the theater itself. Even the Aristotelian passage cited by Rainolds and Leigh as a basis for their antitheatrical arguments appears amidst a discussion of the rearing of children, which itself appears amidst a larger work of political philosophy. Similarly, for some early modern antitheatricalists, the goal of eliminating theater is part of a much larger goal of reshaping, and ultimately controlling, society—the primary example being the closure of the London theaters near the beginning of the English Civil War. I wonder if that’s a bit of what we’re seeing today as well with the highly politicized banning of “obscene” books: the proponents claim these bans to be about the books’ content, but in reality they’re about promoting a larger ideological agenda.

If there is a link here, then as a vocal advocate of both theatrical performance and access to diverse literature, I take some comfort in the fact that antitheatrical movements have seldom succeeded. Rainolds’s diatribes did little to curtail dramatic performance at early modern Oxford; even during the English Civil War, drama continued to circulate in various forms. If history is any guide, then one can hope that this latest round of bans won’t succeed in the long run. It’s just a question of how much harm they will cause in the meantime.

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Image: Ancient Roman theater in Mérida
user:Mimi-chan / Wikimedia Commons / public domain