Historians of political thought speak of ‘languages’ of politics. A language provides a lexicon, an available resource for legitimating positions. It is looser than a ‘theory’, because protean, and not predictive of particular doctrines. Some languages attract considerable scholarly attention, while others languish, for all that they were ambient in past cultures. In recent scholarship on early modern European thought, natural law and civic humanism have dominated. Yet prescriptive appeals to national historiographies were equally pervasive. Many European cultures appealed to Tacitean mythologies of a Gothic ur-constitution. The Anglophone variant dwelt on putative Saxon freedoms, the status of the Norman ‘Conquest’, whether feudalism ruptured the Gothic inheritance, and how common law related to ‘reason’, natural law, and divine law. Whigs rooted parliaments in the Saxon witenagemot; though, by the eighteenth century, ‘modern’ Whigs discerned liberty as the fruit of recent socio-economic change. Levellers and Chartists alike talked of liberation from the ‘Norman Yoke’. These themes were explored from the 1940s onwards under the stimulus of Herbert Butterfield; one result was J. G. A. Pocock's classic Ancient constitution and the feudal law (1957).
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