chapter  12
Method for the Easy Comprehension of History (Jean Bodin, 1530–1596)
Pages 6

Thus aggressive historical criticism was mixed with an open assault on power politics in the Roman church.

Works by Valla

Works about Valla

Useful references

His father was an affluent master tailor, his mother of Spanish-Jewish descent. While still a youth he joined the Carmelite order and lived for a time in a monastery. It is not clear, but he may have fallen under suspicion for heresy after a two-year visit to Paris. Subsequently he was released from monastic vows. In 1550 he commenced law studies at the University of Toulouse. Along the way he learned Hebrew, Greek, German, and Italian. In 1559 he published a treatise on education which defended and recommended humanist studies in public

schools to strengthen the state in both politics and religion. Social order and political stability, he argued, relied on one educational system for all. Having studied constitutions of the west European states, he was prominent in political and legal affairs as an authority on constitutional law. He died of the plague and was buried in Laon. The background for his writing is the chaotic, disruptive age he

lived in, punctuated by religious war in France between Huguenots (French Calvinists) and Catholics and uncertainties about the scope of royal power. Political arrangements of the era were unable to moderate religious passions and afford battered European or French populations with a semblance of peaceful stability. Bodin sought a pathway to order without which nothing else could be accomplished. He wanted an end to religious violence, the bloodiest event being a Catholic massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Although he supported Catholicism as the one true faith in France, he was critical of the Papacy and toward the end of his life published a work that urged toleration of different faiths, the famous Sevenfold Conversation. He was accused by some of being a secret Calvinist and even an atheist. His works on political theory, notably La République (which refers

to a “state”), sum up political and legal thought of Renaissance France. Social order depended on a clarification of sovereignty, the legitimate seat of state power. He defined sovereignty as “supreme power over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law,” and denied the existence of a “mixed” state. The choices were monarchy with popular assemblies as nonbinding advisors, aristocracy with assemblies binding on the monarch, or democracy with final power invested in assemblies. His preference was the first, “since the royal power is natural, that is, instituted by God … ” (282). He believed a proper study of history, freed of medieval limitations and associations with rhetoric, would aid government “since history for the most part deals with the state and with changes taking place within it … ” (153). His political theory was at odds with itself and its objectives prob-

ably undoable. The political solution to disunity and violence was unquestioned power invested in a sovereign, but he wished also to preserve the integrity of ancient constitutional laws. The solution to religious war was prudent toleration under a sovereign of more than one tradition of belief, including Judaism and Islam, but he also wanted a single religion to help unite the state. A reformed view of history did not help resolve these dilemmas. Renaissance historians shared a growing consciousness that change

had indeed taken place, that past and present are not the same.

However ordinary or obscure, everything was granted a past and therefore a history of development. The perceived nature of history underwent change as well. A new climate of opinion (see essay 38 in this volume) held that its purpose was to explain why things happened as they did, not merely to persuade or give pleasure in the ancient and still popular tradition of rhetoric. Behind this desire for causal explanation was a sharper awareness

of evidence. Medieval historiography accepted authority uncritically. Whatever was in print must be true. If there were no sources, it was acceptable to invent stories and fabricate documents. These practices fell into disrepute among Renaissance scholars, who critiqued documents and exposed fictions, religious or secular, passed off as fact (see essay 13 in this volume). In Italy the humanist movement, inspired by recovery and study of surviving Greco-Roman historical works, elevated history as an independent “art” (ars historica) rather than a branch of rhetoric, an ideal developed most fully in France, with Bodin the preeminent figure. He aimed to show how various traditions of law could be recon-

ciled by applying the right method of writing and reading history, which he defined as “the true narration of things” (15). The shift from rhetoric to method moved history forward as a discipline governed by rules of evidence: “I have made up my mind that it is practically an impossibility for the man who writes to give pleasure, to impart the truth of the matter also … ” (55). Thucydides was his admired example (see essay 2 in this volume). From truthful, impartial history lessons useful to the present would emerge. Virtue would be strengthened by exposure to good and ill effects of human motives and actions. His book on the methodology of history, Methodus ad facilem his-

toriarum cognitionem, appeared when he was thirty-six. It was a departure from fifteenth-century Italian understanding of history as style and presentation in narrative form. The idea of methodus was fashionable at the time. The word was used in titles of treatises on “arts” (ars anatomica, ars grammatica, and so on) that had nothing to do with method. Bodin’s method is inconsistently critical of rhetoric and does not claim to be a science, but it differed from the humanist idea of method, which was confined mostly to analyzing methods in classical literature with no specific application to philosophy or science. Shortly after his death from plague in Laon, fruitful method would become a momentous issue in science and philosophy with Galileo and Descartes. Bodin aimed to expand and control fact within a framework of

general principles. In addition to his substituting his version of a

disciplined method for pleasing rhetoric, readers of history are advised how best to approach it as a body of internal procedures and standards. With respect to sources, for example, a distinction between primary and secondary documents emerges, which rhetoricians had never bothered with. He also attempted to formulate a framework of universal history with chronological divisions, recognizing that different chunks of historical time have their own character and directions of change. The work consists of a dedication, a preamble, and ten chapters-

what history is, the order for reading works, arrangement of material, choosing historians, assessing histories, types of government, a critique of “four monarchies” theory (Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman) and a golden age, a universal chronology, a test for origins of people, and his order for collecting histories, altogether 380 pages. Chapter 10 is his 15-page “bibliography” of 282 texts. Chapter headings summarize his “method,” although “easy comprehension” is hard to come by in the absence of straightforward exposition unencumbered by a blizzard of names. The sum of his learning and industry is immense but exhausting to follow, especially in the chapter on how to choose historians (e.g., 54-55). The work is marred by an earnest accumulation of tedious detail that was probably a drag on later influence. Bodin is more successful outlining his purposes than lucidly working them out. Thus he wants to start with the general, universal history, and then flesh it out with details, but relations of the two and transitions between them are rarely clear or easy to digest. Three kinds of history are distinguished-human affairs, physical

nature, and the divine: “So of the three types of history, let us for the moment abandon the divine to the theologians, the natural to the philosophers, while we concentrate long and intently upon human actions and the rules governing them” (15-17). In human affairs, history can be particular, confining itself to words and deeds of one man or one people, or universal, dealing with numerous men or states. To bring order out of profusion, “let us place before ourselves a general chart for all periods, not too detailed and therefore easy to study, in which are contained the origins of the world, the floods, the earliest beginnings of the states and of the religions which have been more famous, and their ends, if indeed they have come to an end” (21). Sorting good history from the bad requires empirical knowledge of

geography and climate. The world and human nature are not everywhere the same: