Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Jean Bodin, ‘This Pre-Eminent Man of France’

Reviewed by Robert F. W. Smith

Howell A. Lloyd, Jean Bodin, ‘This Pre-Eminent Man of France’: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017). ISBN 9780198800149, 328 pp., £75.00.


[1] Hitherto, Jean Bodin was one amongst many of the most significant figures of the Northern Renaissance who lacked a detailed, full-length biographical study in the English language. For that reason alone, any biography of this kind, aiming at a comprehensive description and analysis of Bodin’s life and work, was destined to become the standard work on him for many years to come. It is fortunate that Howell Lloyd’s careful and methodical study is the one which has appeared to supply the vacancy. It does so admirably.

[2] The book is described as an ‘intellectual biography’, and it is certainly that. Inevitably, given the sparse documentation of Bodin’s life, there is little material about his private life or personality, except insofar as these emerge from consideration of his writings and the progress of his career. There is only as much detail about the intellectual context and reception of his work as is strictly necessary. This makes his importance in the grand scheme of things rather hard to gauge from this volume alone. Professor Lloyd recently edited a collection of essays on these topics, The Reception of Bodin (2013), and the biographical study would undoubtedly benefit from being read alongside that work.

[3] The erudition and labour necessary merely to synthesise the existing scholarship on Bodin should not be underestimated, for although this is the first modern English biography, obviously a great many scholars with a diverse range of specialisms have published books and essays about him (many of them in French). Lloyd is not afraid to correct these scholars where necessary, for example when arguing that Bodin’s supposed Hebraism was partly another aspect of his Hellenistic and Neoplatonic interests, particularly insofar as Philo Judaeus is concerned, which is a substantial adjustment to the view of P. L. Rose, one of the most significant writers on Bodin, who saw him as a Judaizer.

[4] Best known to posterity as a jurist and theoretician of politics, in this study Bodin emerges as almost the archetype of a Renaissance man. He believed his own time to be the most brilliant and commendable era of world history thus far, due to its intellectual accomplishments and wide-ranging commerce. He had the omnivorous interests and intellectual optimism characteristic of the type, as shown by his attempts to discover the secret destinies of republics by means of occult mathematics and a kind of geographical determinism. He did not, however, go as far as some (e.g. Ficino, whom he called “the most sagacious of the Academics”), in that he did not admit any distinction between ‘white magic’ and the diabolical arts, regarding all magic as impious.

[5] By the standards of the time, Bodin seems to have been a consistent advocate of, if not exactly toleration, then of moderation in religious policy. A former Carmelite, he was widely regarded by orthodox Catholics as a heretic; his most successful works, the République and the Démonomanie, were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the latter for its over-reliance on Jewish sources. He was in the service of the Duke of Anjou, who forged an alliance with Dutch rebels against Philip II of Spain. Like any respectable thinker, he maintained that it was intolerable to have multiple religions competing in one polity, or indeed to change the religion of the state, once established; but in his writings he counselled princes to prefer non-violent methods of enforcing conformity, and, at the Estates-General of Blois, as deputy for Vermandois, he played a key role in persuading the Third Estate to adjust a resolution in favour of restoring Roman Catholicism throughout France to say that it should be done “without war”.

[6] Although his confessional moderation contrasts favourably with some leading scholars of the time, such as Joseph Scaliger, Bodin’s toleration did not extend to witchcraft. Instead, in the Démonomanie he threw his intellectual weight behind the witch-panic sweeping Europe, recommending severe and prejudicial treatment of suspects, including harsher forms of torture, such as were practised in Turkey. He apparently regarded the increasing prevalence of witches, sorcerers, werewolves and other diabolists as an unparalleled danger to the community, justifying extreme responses above and beyond the level of ordinary crime. His gleeful sadism and willing credulity make for an interesting contrast not only with sceptical contemporaries such as Montaigne, but with other erudite believers in witchery such as Martin Delrio, who, as Jan Machielsen described in his recent biography, at least insisted that normal legal procedures should be followed.

[7] Commendably, Lloyd has no interest in boosting Bodin’s reputation, or in exaggerating his subject’s importance. His preference is always for the judicious and balanced conclusion. For example: Bodin’s reputation as a classical scholar was impugned by the vituperative Scaliger, who claimed he had stolen emendations wholesale from Adrianus Turnebus for his edition of Oppian’s Cynegetica. Lloyd rightly points out that, if Bodin indeed ‘borrowed’ in this way, “he was in excellent company” (p. 27) – but goes on to convincingly defend Bodin from the charge. Later, however, where the major works are concerned, the man Lloyd describes is one of “disingenuous” methods (p. 183), whose citations and use of sources could be dubious, even mendacious. This was not uncommon amongst scholars at all levels during this hyper-partisan period of national and religious politics, as several recent works on the Republic of Letters have shown.

[8] As for the view that Bodin’s scholarly programme influenced the debates at the Estates-General in which he participated, as some French historians have held, Lloyd shows that “the grounds are scant for supposing the République to have set an agenda for the deputies at Blois” in 1576, the year that work appeared (p. 162). The overall picture of Bodin at this, the apparent height of his career, is of “not so much a moulder as a mirror of contemporary opinion” (p. 169). This conclusion, reached with little fanfare, may prove to be the book’s most important finding. Not only is it an antidote to the ever-present temptation to put the great personalities of this glittering era of scholarship on pedestals, it represents a very different perspective on Renaissance intellectual culture from the long-standing individualistic tradition of Renaissance historiography, which has tended to revolve around a few men whose brilliance and productivity made them celebrated. One of the effects of this book will surely be to dispel the glamorous aura that clings around Bodin’s famous name. As Anthony Grafton did for Scaliger, Professor Lloyd has helped to demystify the enigmatic Bodin and place his work in its proper perspective. In sum, this book – along with Lloyd’s wider programme of research projects on Bodin – makes important contributions to scholarship, and should be gratefully received.

University of Southampton, UK, August 2018

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