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Renaissance and Revolt

By N.M. Sutherland | Published in History Today 1988 
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J.H.M. Salmon new book on early modern Europe

Renaissance and Revolt: Essays in the intellectual and social history of early modern Europe

J.H.M. Salmon - Cambridge University Press, 1987 – ix + 360pp - £30

Professor Salmon's Renaissance and Revolt is a welcome collection of his published articles, updated by comments on later works. In addition, there is a substantial introduction, and a new piece on Gallicanism and Anglicanism. As the subtitle indicates, Salmon's interests lie principally in the intellectual and social spheres. This very learned collection, which will be especially useful to students and scholars, is divided into three sections, entitled respectively: humanism, stoicism and interest of state; sovereignty, resistance and Christian obedience, and structures and fissures.

The introduction comprises an analysis of the methodological development of the Annales school. While acknowledging their contributions, Salmon is too good an historian to be misled. As against their cult of mentalites, Salmon prefers 'the articulate expression of ideas'. Since, he says, ideas act as a stimulus to action as well as its retrospective justification, he works from events to investigate the relationship between ideas and social tensions, emphasising the discontinuity and change in this period. In other words, he studies the evidence, providing a salutory corrective to the static, doctrinaire approach of the Annaliste who stuffs his material into an interpretative mould, no matter how misshapen the result.

During this period, changes in literary fashions reflected current issues. Section one traces broad developments through this period leading to reason of state under Richelieu and the justification of self-interest. That is exemplified by an interesting chapter on Henri de Rohan who, as a Calvinist leader, is exposed as a sham. This accords with his wayward conduct and the obscurity of his Huguenot objectives.

Issues of sovereignty, resistance and obedience derived inevitably from the Reformation. However, the so-called French wars of religion had, if anything, more to do with dynastic problems. The supposedly absolute monarchy was in fact perilously vulnerable, since the fundamentals essential to a stable polity remained undefined. Consequently ideas gyrated giddily in the wake of rapidly changing circumstances. It is impossible, briefly, to do justice to Salmon's account of these gyrations through the period of civil wars, diversity of religion, leagues and regicide. The chapter on Gallicanism and Anglicanism is especially interesting since England became inextricably involved in the great ideological struggle. Where the connection between ideas and events is exceptionally close, Salmon remains alert to circumstantial explanations of philosophical absurdities.

Part three will be invaluable to students of the controversy polarised by Porchnev and Mousnier on seventeenth-century popular sedition. Salmon has traced its development and summarised the derivative research. Two of his own contributions relate to the sixteenth-century, thereby providing a longer perspective. Here again his common – and historical – sense is refreshing. He criticised the conclusions drawn from too narrow a documentary base, as well as the conceptual framework which was, of course, designed to produce a general interpretation. Thus, for example, in disputing the role of the nobility, all noblemen tend to feature as the same nobleman, which obviously they were not. One might add that their conduct was greatly affected by royal minorities, foreign policy, court factions and the unpopularity of cardinal ministers. Salmon, in particular, has some interesting observations on office-holders and venality, and is inclined to seek the roots of popular rebellion in local conditions and the legacies of the sixteenth century. Where else should origins lie but in the past?

N.M. SUTHERLAND is author of Princes Politics and Religion 1547-1589 (Hambledon Press, 1984).



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