Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Soon to be added to the reading list...

upon its release later this month.

Cary J. Nederman, Lineages of European Political Thought: Explorations Along the Medieval/Modern Divide from John of Salisbury to Hegel, Catholic University of America Press, 2009

This book examines some of the salient historiographical and conceptual issues that animate current scholarly debates about the nature of the medieval contribution to modern Western political ideas. On the one hand, scholars who subscribe to the "Baron thesis" concerning civic humanism have asserted that the break between medieval and modern modes of political thinking formed an unbridgeable chasm associated with the development of an entirely new framework at the dawn of the Florentine Renaissance. Others have challenged this hypothesis, replacing it with another extreme: an unbroken continuity in the intellectual terrain between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries (or later). The present book seeks to qualify both of these positions. Cary J. Nederman argues for a more nuanced historiography of intellectual continuity and change that depends upon analyzing a host of contextual as well as philosophical factors to account for the emergence of the European tradition of political theory in the medieval and early modern periods. He finds that categories such as "medieval" and "modern" can and should be usefully deployed, yet always with the understanding that they are provisional and potentially fluid.

The book opens with an introduction that lays out the main issues and sources of the debate, followed by five sets of interrelated chapters. The first section critically assesses some of the leading scholars who have contributed to the current understanding of the relationship between medieval and modern ideas. The central part of the book includes three sections that address salient themes that illuminate and illustrate continuity and change: Dissent and Power, Empire and Republic, and Political Economy. The volume closes with a few examples of the ways in which medieval political doctrines were absorbed into and transformed during the modern period up to the nineteenth century.

Nederman is perhaps the leading current scholar of medieval political theory, and this looks like an exciting book (at least to me; I understand that there are a lot of people who would think "exciting" a laughably weird way to describe a book of the historiography of the medieavl-modern divide in political theory).

As it happens, both of the universities at which I've taught in the undergraduate history of political thought sequence break between Machiavelli and Hobbes, not between the medieval era and Machiavelli. (At Chicago the first term is ancient-medieval-Renaissance; at McGill there's an ancient term and a medieval-Renaissance term. At both there's then a 17th-c/18th-c class, and a 19th-c/early 20th-c class.) But at the graduate level, both universities take the other tack, breaking between medieval and early modern with Machiavelli belonging to the latter. There's good reason to be puzzled here, and I'll be interested to see what Nederman has to say.

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