COMMONWEALTH: THE SOCIAL, CULTURAL, AND CONCEPTUAL CONTEXTS OF AN EARLY MODERN KEYWORD
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 July 2011
The article explores ‘commonwealth’ both as a term and a conceptual field across the early modern period, with a particular focus on the Anglophone world. The shifts of usage of ‘commonwealth’ are explored, from a term used to describe the polity, to one used to describe a particular, republican form of polity, through to its eclipse in the eighteenth century by other terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘state’. But the article also investigates the variety of usages during any one time, especially at moments of crisis, and the network of related terms that constituted ‘commonwealth’. That investigation requires, it is argued, not just a textual approach but one that embraces social custom and practice, as well as the study of literary and visual forms through which the keyword ‘commonwealth’ was constructed. The article emphasizes the importance of social context to language; the forms, metaphors and images used to describe and depict the polity; and to show how linguistic change could occur through the transmutation of elements of the conceptual field that endowed the keyword with its meaning.
- Research Article
- Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011
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2 For a useful overview of ‘commonwealth’ see Jones, Whitney, The tree of commonwealth, 1450–1793 (Madison, NJ, and London, 2000)Google Scholar. American state commonwealths include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. In the British imperial context, the term appears to derive from Jan Smuts, who suggested it in 1917, and it was used in the 1931 Statute of Westminster to create ‘The British Commonwealth of Nations’. ‘The Commonwealth’ nevertheless became more common after 1949, when India's desire for a republican form of government required a term sufficiently flexible to cover different political structures whilst denoting a desire to further the common good, arguably representing a return to its early modern usage.
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13 Cicero: on the commonwealth, ed. Zetzel, pp. xxxvii–xxxviii.
15 So was its Aristotelian counterpart politeia, typically rendered as ‘politia’ (Latin) or ‘policie/police’ (English): see, for example,Plummer, C. E., ed., The governance of England, by Sir John Fortescue (Oxford, 1885), p. 112Google Scholar. It seems likely, however, that uses of this term were encouraged and informed by the vogue for Cicero: Fortescue's pamphlet contains an often-overlooked chapter praising the republican elements in the Roman polity (though preferring the term ‘politikly’ to describe this manner of rule, rather than using res publica or any anglicized version: ibid., p. 347).
17 Starkey: ‘the prosperouse and most perfayt state of a multytud assemblyd togyddur in any cuntrey, cyty or towne governyd vertusely in cyvyle lyfe accordyng to the nature and dygnyte of man’ (Mayer, Thomas F., ed., Thomas Starkey: a dialogue between Pole and Lupset (London, 1989), p. 38Google Scholar). Morison: ‘a certain number of cities, towns, shires, that all agree upon one law and one head, united and knit together by the observation of the laws’ (Berkowitz, D. S., Humanist scholarship and public order: two tracts against the pilgrimage of Grace by Sir Richard Morison (Washington, DC, 1984), p. 117.Google Scholar
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50 Though the verse refers to a cedar, the foliage is unmistakably that of an oak tree, and certainly bears no similarity to that of the cedar: word and image do not tell identical stories.
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54 From: ‘House of Commons journal volume 6: 19 April 1650', Journal of the House of Commons, vi:1648–1651 (1802), pp. 400–1. URL: www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=25897&strquery=commonwealth, accessed 28 June 2010.
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61 Crackfart & Tony; or, knave and fool: in a dialogue over a dish of coffee, concerning matters of religion and government (1680), pp. 32, 34. As a result, ‘state’ was increasingly used to describe the polity. For example, The Whig-Intelligencer (1684), broadside, talks about the Whigs wanting to ‘reduce the State to a Commonwealth again’.
62 A satyr against common-wealths (1684).
64 The British Museum Satires 1127.
65 See also The committee (1680), the text of which is ascribed to Roger L'Estrange.
66 To the kings most sacred majesty: the most faithful and unfeigned thanks and resolves of … the city of Norwich (1681).
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