Fighting the monstrous ‘many-headed multitude’: anti-democracy in early modern England 1558-1642
A historiographical consensus simply accepts that in the early modern period democracy was reputed to be the worst form of government. However, this scholarly trend leaves a few major questions unanswered: why was this so? How was criticism of democracy articulated? In what ways did different authors and genres depict popular government? Which political concerns and social prejudices informed this anti-democratic paradigm? What is the legacy of such a mindset? In order to address these points my research explores how anti-democratic ideas were publicly elaborated in political, theological and philosophical discourse between the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558) and the explosion of the Civil Wars (1642). The project’s main focus is on the languages, images and intellectual traditions that were deployed in treatises, pamphlets, sermons and cheap prints to decry the ‘many-headed multitude’. This way of proceeding will illustrate what democracy was thought to stand for, and it will explain how and why within the timeframe here chosen different groups in England were singled out as the mouthpieces of this polity. My research also demonstrates that criticism of democracy involved a broad plurality of discourses: from politics to religion, morality, knowledge, the metaphysical sphere, economy, language, medicine, the natural-animal domain. Moreover, it examines sources (e.g. sermons, broadsides, commonplace books, State papers) that are not always considered in the history of political thought. Thus, my study deals with a great number of so-called ‘minors’ whose opinions serve to display a particular mode of thinking about politics in early modern England and Europe. The analysis of these sources aims to build up an exhaustive semantic field for democracy/anti-democracy, and to show how democracy represented an ever-present challenge at a plurality of levels in English public life. Democracy per se might not have been a European reality (apart from some Swiss cantons), but it was certainly seen as an increasing menace to all order.
Methodologically, my project combines the approach of intellectual history with the examination of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline society. This is to say that it not only situates texts in their political context, but it takes into account the modalities of popular protests as well as the mechanisms of political participation both nationally and locally. This approach avoids a too-narrow focus on the textuality of texts, and thereby pays novel attention to their production, distribution, audiences. Historiographically, despite a huge amount of secondary literature on democracy, few studies have been dedicated to its opposite, and least of all to anti-democratic thought in pre-Civil War England. In this sense, my work analyses a precious portion of Western political reflection and provides a platform to discuss the legacy of principles that are still fundamental in our society.
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt