Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Rituals of Execution in Early Modern Germany"

"Rituals of Execution in Early Modern Germany"
by Richard van Dulman
from Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany

Early Modern crime and punishment evokes images of burning, public torture, and hanging and quartering. This book explores the religious, symbolic and political conditions in which such punishments were inflicted. The author argues that punishment was so terrible because there was little belief in rehabilitation of offenders, and the only purpose punishments served was to expiate crimes. He describes how symbolism influenced the institution and execution of tortures. The murderer of a child was thrown into a river in a sack, in which there were also a dog, a chicken, a snake and a monkey, all of which were allegorical representations of aspects of the evil that had been committed. Many punishments, such as burning on a wheel, were continued long after the victim was dead - the punishment being an expiatory ritual as much as a means of killing. The book also contains a studies of the crowds who turned up to witness executions in this period, and of the executioners themselves

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Medieval versus early modern dishonor"

"Medieval versus early modern dishonor"
by Kathy Stuart
from Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany

This book presents a social and cultural history of "dishonorable people" (unehrliche Leute), an outcast group in early modern Germany. Executioners, skinners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, latrine-cleaners, and bailiffs were among the "dishonorable" by virtue of their trades. It shows the extent to which dishonor determined the life chances and self-identity of these people. Taking Augsburg as a prime example, it investigates how honorable estates interacted with dishonorable people, and shows how the pollution anxieties of early modern Germans structured social and political relations within honorable society.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Military Revolution

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800
by Geoffrey Parker

Well before the Industrial Revolution, Europe developed the superior military potential and expertise that enabled her to dominate the world for the next two centuries. In this attractively illustrated and updated edition, Geoffrey Parker discusses the major changes in the military practice of the West during this time period—establishment of bigger armies, creation of superior warships, the role of firearms—and argues that these major changes amounted to a "military revolution" that gave Westerners a decided advantage over people of other continents.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Leviathan, Or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil
by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan, Hobbes's most important work and one of the most influential philosophical texts produced during the seventeenth century, was written partly as a response to the fear Hobbes experienced during the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars. In the 1640s, it was clear to Hobbes that Parliament was going to turn against King Charles I, so he fled to France for eleven years, terrified that, as a Royalist, he would be persecuted for his support of the king. Hobbes composed Leviathan while in France, brilliantly articulating the philosophy of political and natural science that he had been developing since the 1630s. Hobbes's masterwork was finally published in 1651, two years after Parliament ordered the beheading of Charles I and took over administration of the English nation in the name of the Commonwealth.
Leviathan's argument for the necessity of absolute sovereignty emerged in the politically unstable years after the Civil Wars, and its publication coincided with that of many Republican treatises seeking to justify the regicide (killing of the king) to the rest of Europe (John Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates is a famous example of these regicide tracts). Not only was the political argument of Leviathan controversial at the time of its publication, but the philosophical method employed by Hobbes to make his claims also scandalized many of his contemporaries--even those writers, such as Robert Filmer (the author of the Royalist tract Patriarcha), who otherwise supported Hobbes's claims for absolute sovereignty.

Hobbes's materialist philosophy was based upon a mechanistic view of the universe, holding that all phenomena were explainable purely in terms of matter and motion, and rejecting concepts such as incorporeal spirits or disembodied souls. Consequently, many critics labeled Hobbes an atheist (although he was not, in the strict sense). Associated with both atheism and the many deliberately terrifying images of Leviathan, Hobbes became known as the "Monster of Malmsbury" and the "Bug-bear of the Nation." In 1666, Hobbes's books were burned at Oxford (where Hobbes had graduated from Magdalen College in 1608), and the resulting conflagration was even blamed in Parliament for having started the Great Fire of London. The chaotic atmosphere of England in the aftermath of the Civil Wars ensured that Hobbes's daring propositions met with a lively reaction.

Hobbes knew that Leviathan would be controversial, for not only did the text advocate restoration of monarchy when the English republic was at its strongest (Oliver Cromwell was not instituted as Lord High Protector until 1653, and the Restoration of Charles II did not occur until 1660), but Hobbes's book also challenged the very basis of philosophical and political knowledge. Hobbes claimed that traditional philosophy had never arrived at irrefutable conclusions, that it had instead offered only useless sophistries and insubstantial rhetoric; he thus called for a reform of philosophy that would enable secure truth--claims with which everyone could agree.

Consequently, Hobbesian philosophy would prevent disagreements about the fundamental aspects of human nature, society, and proper government. Furthermore, because Hobbes believed that civil war resulted from disagreements in the philosophical foundations of political knowledge, his plan for a reformed philosophy to end divisiveness would also end the conditions of war. For Hobbes, civil war was the ultimate terror, the definition of fear itself. He thus wanted to reform philosophy in order to reform the nation and thereby vanquish fear.

Earlier in the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon--for whom Hobbes had served as secretary in his youth--had also proposed a reform of philosophy, a reform he called the "Great Instauration." Bacon's program was an inductive philosophy based upon the observation of natural facts ("inductive" reasoning derives general principles from particular instances or facts); the experimental manipulation of nature of Bacon's scheme was very influential for the development of the historical period commonly called the Scientific Revolution, and also formed the backbone of the English Royal Society. Like Hobbes's, Bacon's system rejected traditional philosophical knowledge as untrustworthy, instead embracing nature as the only sure basis for all claims for truth. But Hobbes argued that the experimentalist program was also unsuccessful in providing secure, indisputable knowledge. Hobbes therefore rejected the Baconian system and argued vehemently against it. Hobbes's own deductive scientific philosophy was not experimental--in "deductive" reasoning, a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises, rather than being inferred from instances of these premises--but Hobbes maintained that it provided better understanding of the universe and society than both traditional philosophy and experimental science.

Leviathan attempted to create controversy in politics and in science, radically challenging both contemporary government and philosophy itself; yet, despite its very invocation of controversy, Leviathan sought ultimately to annihilate controversy for good. Hobbes's philosophical method claimed to provide indisputable conclusions, and its depiction of the Leviathan of society suggested that the Hobbesian method could put an end to controversy, war, and fear. Hobbes's philosophy was highly influential in certain sectors (Hobbesism was a fashionable intellectual position well into the eighteenth century). However, Hobbes, who died in 1679, never lived to see his work achieve the widespread and totalizing effects for which he had hoped. Excluded from the Royal Society for his anti-experimentalist stance and derided by many contemporaries as an immoral monster, Hobbes neither transformed the nation nor reformed philosophy as he had envisioned. Nonetheless, Hobbes has had a lasting influence in the history of Western philosophy, as he is credited with inaugurating political science; his crowning achievement, Leviathan is still recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the history of ideas. Written during a moment in English history when the political structure, social structure, and methods of science were all in flux and open to manipulation, Leviathan played an essential role in the development of the modern world.

Leviathan is divided into four books: "Of Man," "Of Common-wealth," "Of a Christian Common-wealth," and "Of the Kingdome of Darknesse." Book I contains the philosophical framework for the entire text, while the remaining books simply extend and elaborate the arguments presented in the initial chapters. Consequently, Book I is given the most attention in the detailed summaries that follow. Hobbes begins his text by considering the elementary motions of matter, arguing that every aspect of human nature can be deduced from materialist principles. Hobbes depicts the natural condition of mankind--known as the state of nature--as inherently violent and awash with fear. The state of nature is the "war of every man against every man," in which people constantly seek to destroy one another. This state is so horrible that human beings naturally seek peace, and the best way to achieve peace is to construct the Leviathan through social contract.

Book II details the process of erecting the Leviathan, outlines the rights of sovereigns and subjects, and imagines the legislative and civil mechanics of the commonwealth. Book III concerns the compatibility of Christian doctrine with Hobbesian philosophy and the religious system of the Leviathan. Book IV engages in debunking false religious beliefs and arguing that the political implementation of the Leviathanic state is necessary to achieve a secure Christian commonwealth.

Hobbes's philosophical method in Leviathan is modeled after a geometric proof, founded upon first principles and established definitions, and in which each step of argument makes conclusions based upon the previous step. Hobbes decided to create a philosophical method similar to the geometric proof after meeting Galileo on his extended travels in Europe during the 1630s. Observing that the conclusions derived by geometry are indisputable because each of constituent steps is indisputable in itself, Hobbes attempted to work out a similarly irrefutable philosophy in his writing of Leviathan.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Prince

The Prince
by Niccolo Machiavelli

Need to seize a country? Have enemies you must destroy? In this handbook for despots and tyrants, the Renaissance statesman Machiavelli sets forth how to accomplish this and more, while avoiding the awkwardness of becoming generally hated and despised.

"Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge."

For nearly 500 years, Machiavelli's observations on Realpolitik have shocked and appalled the timid and romantic, and for many his name was equivalent to the devil's own. Yet, The Prince was the first attempt to write of the world of politics as it is, rather than sanctimoniously of how it should be, and thus The Prince remains as honest and relevant today as when Machiavelli first put quill to parchment, and warned the junior statesman to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance best known for his realist political philosophy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seventeenth-Century Europe

Seventeenth-Century Europe
by Thomas Munck

This is a fully-revised edition of a well-established synthesis of the period from the Thirty Years War to the consolidation of absolute monarchy and the landowning society of the ancient régime. Thematically organized, the book covers all of Europe, from Britain and Scandinavia to Spain and Eastern Europe. Important new material has been added on the Ottomans, on Christian-Muslem contacts and on the role of women, and the text has been thoroughly updated to take account of recent research.

Thomas Munck is Reader in History at the University of Glasgow.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Power of Kings

The Power of Kings: Monarchy and Religion in Europe, 1589-1715
by Paul Kleber Monod

In the sixteenth century, the kings of Europe were like gods to their subjects. Within 150 years, however, this view of monarchs had altered dramatically: a king was the human, visible sign of the rational state. How did such a momentous shift in political understanding come about? This sweeping book explores the changing cultural significance of the power of European kings from the assassination of France's Henry III to the death of Louis XIV. Paul Kléber Monod draws on political history, political philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and literature to understand the relationship between kings and their political subjects and the interplay between monarchy and religion. He also makes use of 35 paintings and statues to illuminate the changing public images of kings.

Discussing monarchies throughout Europe, from Britain to Russia, Monod tells how sixteenth-century kings and queens were thought to heal the sick with a touch, were mediators between divine authority and the Christian self in quasi-religious ceremonies, and were seen as ideal mirrors of human identity. By 1715, the sacred authority of the monarchy had been supplanted by an ideology fusing internal moral responsibility with external obedience to an abstract political authority. Subjects were expected to identify not with a sacred king but with the natural person of the ruler. No longer divine, the kings and queens of the Enlightenment took up a new, more human place in the hearts and minds of their subjects.