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Intellectual change
Mark Knights
Ideas and contexts
• Could study ‘great thinkers’ and examine their
ideas; they are indeed part of the story but
• Ideas don’t change in isolation from events and
movements around them
• Ideas aren’t just the preserve of ‘intellectuals’ but
are inherent in everyday actions, conflicts and
• So let’s look at the ‘big themes’ of the module
and explore how they changed assumptions and
• But with the caveat that a focus on change must
not obscure continuity over the period
Theme 1: Church and State
• We have been exploring
major changes in the
church (Protestant and
Catholic Reformations)
that were also ideological
• We have been examining
the development of the
state: its growing fiscalmilitary capacity, the
ideologies of its rulers
• We have been analysing
the interaction of church
and state: riots,
rebellions, revolts and
The related problems of C16th French wars
of religion, the revolt of the United Provinces
and C17th revolutionary Britain
– Religious pluralism and friction
– Fundamental rethinking of the grounds of
obedience, forms of government and the right
to resist
Religious pluralism
• Catholic vs Protestant but also the
fracturing of protestantism, leading
to protestant against protestant
• The destruction of religious unity;
simultaneous and conflicting claims
to be ‘true’
• What is the correct response?
– Represssion, enforced uniformity?
Very difficult for protestants wanting
to avoid accusation of behaving like
catholics. Solution adopted for much
of the C16th and in England after
1660 and France after 1685. Culture
of unity and uniformity.
– Toleration/freedom of conscience?
Solution adopted in United
Provinces, France 1598, England
1689. Recognition of diversity and
How to justify freedom of
• Dutch Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, of Portuguese-Jewish
background), whose Theological-Political Treatise (1670) argued for
freedom of thought and conscience
• or Locke’s Letters on Toleration (early 1690s)
• or the Huguenots and protestant sects
• Arguments:
– You cannot compel the conscience (which is in any case God-given)
– Restricting freedom of conscience is popish and prevents the revelation
of truth
– The church hierarchy have a vested interest in their own power and in
promoting ceremonies and rituals that are not necessary to salvation
(these things are also popish)
– A church is a voluntary society; the state should retreat from the realm
of religious belief.
– Love your neighbour; God created men free
– Or reject Bible and see God as nature or non-Christian
– It promotes commerce and wealth
Hostility to freedom of conscience
In France the Edict of Nantes took
a long time to be registered in
regional parlements – 1609
Rouen; disliked by catholic
Duty to avoid heresy and prevent
subjects falling into error that will
lead them to damnation; without
guidance they will not achieve
salvation and will fall into
superstition, irreligion and
immorality. National churches are
therefore necessary.
Freedom of conscience is only a
cover for political sedition and the
two go hand in hand.
How tolerant were France, UP and
England anyway? are catholics
tolerable? How far a move
towards separation of church and
state? How far does it produce or
reflect a decline of religious zeal?
Resistance theory
Why should you obey a secular authority that
persecutes or proscribes your religion? or which
cannot provide you with security?
• The orthodox answer:
– The king is divinely appointed; he is empowered by
God; God requires obedience; disobedience is sinful;
– The king is sovereign and all powerful; he does not
share power with the people; people certainly have no
right to hold the king to account (God alone will judge
him), and even less right to resist him; the king’s will
is law
– Monarchy is the most natural form of government
Re-thinking the grounds of
obedience and authority
• There were several ways in which that view was
– The Calvinistic defence of religion: private individuals cannot
resist, but there may be institutions that can; developed by his
followers; Beza and the need to follow God’s law not man’s.
– By appeal to an ancient constitution; legal scholarship recovering
sense of unwritten national law embodying sets of privileges and
immemorial customs; this was not a simple story of monarchical
power but on the contrary a long history of a national assembly;
idealisation of ancient liberty and even of popular sovereignty
• Francois Hotman’s Francogallica (1573) ; Sir Edward Coke in
England in early C17th; Pietor de Gregorio in Sicily; Francois
Vranck in Netherlands (Corte Vertooninghe, 1587)
A radical Protestant theory
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or
Defence of Liberty against Tyrants
Possibly by Philippe Duplessis
Mornay. He escaped 1572
massacre and fled to England,
returning to France to aid Henri de
Navarre (Henry IV); an active
contract; natural liberty and
equality; natural law; consent as
basis for civil society; popular
sovereignty; right of resistance;
moral not religious theory.
State of nature [NB influence of
overseas exploration and
colonisation; Locke ‘in the
beginning all the world was
America’], natural freedom and
Catholic resistance theory
Catholic League needed arguments to favour the rejection
of a protestant monarch, such as Henri de Navarre (who
was excommunicated in 1585); but also other
succession crises in Scotland and England.
• Dominican and Jesuit. Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546),
Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1611) and Francisco Suarez
(1548-1617); Robert Persons in England (1580s); Juan
de Mariana (1599)
• Ideas: man not irredeemably evil; Suarez: law of nature
‘written in our minds by the hand of god’; discernible by
reason; political society as artificial and man-made not
god-given; therefore rested on consent of community;
man by nature free and equal.
Ideas about contract
• civil society as man-made, artificially the
result of contract, popular sovereignty
• Hobbes (1651) an authoritarian version of
this contract; the individual transfers all
power to the sovereign
• John Locke (1690) a liberal version of this
contract; the individual entrusts power to
an executive but retains both natural rights
and a power to judge when the
government is dissolved by tyranny; force
against force
Other implications of the Calvinistic reformation
• Notions of the self: examination of one’s life to discern
the signs of providence and hence if you were saved;
more biographies and autobiographies
• The waning of calvinism was even more powerful: the
unleashing of the individual unrestrained by moral code?
• Images and iconoclasm (here in Holland 1568)
The work ethic. Max Weber, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1904-5): laziness was an affront to God; work ethic; giving money away as
charity was useless so invest; turn away from magical explanations to
scientific rationalism
The waning of calvinism unleashed the spirit of capitalism – the pursuit of
luxury was not sinful and helped produce wealth – a more secular society?
The waning of calvinism also accompanied by a fundamental rethinking of
God’s relationship with man: deism (Voltaire) and atheism, the decline of
Theme 2: Empiricism and reason
• In part this develops out
of the reformation
• But it had also preceded
it, growing out of
humanism, exploration
and new scientific
instruments and tools
• Scientific instruments
enabled new ways of
thinking about the world
– Telescope: new ideas
about the earth and
– The microscope [Robert
Hooke, Micrographia
(1665); Antony van
The earth
Cleric Thomas Burnet at end of
C17th went on Grand Tour and
saw Alps: earth had to have been
changed by natural processes
over long periods of time; but still
sought to reconcile this to the
Biblical account. Opened debate
about origin of earth which Bible
put at 4004 BC.
Woodward’s Essay Towards a
Natural History of the Earth (1695)
suggested that fossils were once
living creatures and could be used
to investigate the ancient history
of the earth. Noah’s Flood as the
Edward Llwyd’s Lithiphylacii
Britannici Ichonographia (1699)
mapped and classified fossils,
without reference to the Bible.
Sir Hans Sloane collected
minerals, including those with
pharmaceutical uses.
How did ‘the new science’ impact
more broadly on ideas?
• Decline of witchcraft and decline of magic
1675-1750, saw decline. In the Dutch republic prosecutions came to an almost complete stop after 1600; in
Spain the Inquisition stopped executing witches in wake of Basque witch-hunt of 1609-11; IN France
numbers reduced greatly by 1620s; in England they tapered off after 1612, with the exception of a large hunt
1645-7; Scotland experienced its last large witch-hunt in 1661-2. Against this trend Hungary, Transylvania,
Poland and New England (Salem) had widespread prosecutions only in late C17th and early C18th.
7 European countries took legislative action to remove witchcraft from statute book ege France 1682;
Prussia 1714; GB 1736; Habsburg empire 1766; Russia 1770; Poland 1776; Sweden 1779. NB these often
postdated end of witch craze; and they were not always particularly extensive measures. In England and
France it remained illegal to pretend to exercise powers of witch or tell fortunes(only repealed in 1951).
• A methodology for thinking applied to all realms
of thought: Renée Descartes and Thomas
Hobbes. Mathematical reasoning; minimising the
power of language to distort meaning and
understanding; certainty and probability; political
Theme 3: Communicative
revolution? Was intellectual change
the monopoly of the elite?
• Improvements in transport, shrinks world, allows
news to travel, urban/rural divide?
• Printing press: ubiquitous in England and
Holland by end of our period; end of censorship
in these countries; facilitated newspapers,
vehicle for the dissemination of ideas to a
popular audience and a reflection of popular
ideas; allowed both radical and conservative
ideas to contest each other’s standpoints; force
of public opinion
• Broader public sphere, with some scope for
• Focus has been on intellectual change in north
west Europe (shift from first part of our period
when southern Europe was instrumental in
• Even there we can find not a single trajectory of
change but a process of contested change, of
very different outlooks jostling side by side; we
can find a very strong strand of popular as well
as elite loyalism to church and state
• Outside of that region we could say that the
pace of change was very much less certain
• Which leave us with a question…
When did early modernity end?
• Do we say that the changes I have sketched amount to
an early enlightenment that went on to usher in
modernity? We can discern a weakening of the religious
fervour, even the beginnings of a separation of church
and state; the development of religious pluralism; the
emergence of natural rights and ideologies of popular
sovereignty and resistance; a scientific rationalism; a
free press, a spirit of capitalism
• Or do we want to stress the slow and uneven pace of
change and insist that society is only modern when we
find change across the social scale, across Europe as a
whole, in rural as well as urban society? Are we still
dealing with an ancien regime only swept away with the
French revolution? in which case we might well push the
beginning of modernity a lot later!
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