Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. National Life as Reflected in Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 1. National Life as Reflected in Literature

THE POLITICAL and economic life of England has had an enormous effect on the whole modern world; her constitutional monarchy and her parliamentary government have been consciously imitated by one nation after another, since the time when Montesquieu held them up to admiration. The political ideas which have had such far-reaching influence were taking definite shape in our own country in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. They have left their mark on our literature in many ways; but, in attempting to survey these early writings on politics and economics, and to group them conveniently, it is important to remember that the views they embodied were finding their fullest expression in political action and fiery debate, rather than in graceful literary form. The first essays in English political and economic literature can be best appreciated when they are viewed in connection with contemporary struggles and experience.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England was really anticipating the movement which occurred in many continental countries at a subsequent time; she was taking the lead in the rise of nationalities, and her literature, at that era, illustrates the various phases of conscious life which this revolution seems to involve wherever it occurs. In the first place, there was an intense patriotic sentiment, and a keen interest in national history and traditional custom. Secondly, with the aim of advocating increased opportunity for popular self-government, reflection was directed to the basis on which existing authority rested and the limits within which it should be exercised. Lastly, much consideration was given to the material means of gratifying national ambitions for such political objects as the maintaining of English independence and the expansion of English influence.

Taking these three divisions, we may say that the literary expression of patriotic sentiment and the discussions as to natural resources and the means of developing them were intensely, though not exclusively, insular; while the discussions on the power of the prince and the nature of sovereignty were much more easily applicable to the circumstances of other countries, and were relatively cosmopolitan. England was working out her own destiny; and the form of democratic doctrine which was eventually popularised in this country attracted attention both in the old world and in the new. But history has repeated itself in regard to the other elements of national consciousness. Similar patriotic sentiment, which may be stigmatised as narrow, and jealous care for material resources, have been developed, in one country after another, among the rising nationalities. The special importance of our literature lies in the fact that it not only reflects the first emergence of this modern type of community, but that this early example had a complexity of its own; Great Britain was the scene of the simultaneous rise of two nationalities. Throughout the seventeenth century, with the exception of the years of the protectorate, this island was governed as a dual monarchy. England and Scotland were each prepared in turn to expand and to assimilate her neighbour, and each has exercised an important influence on the political development of the other. The reaction of these two nationalities upon one another, during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, is a political feature that can be best brought into full light by the study of the literature of the day.

It might seem to follow that this political and economic writing, as a direct expression of actual political experience, would be little affected by foreign influence; but this is only true with considerable qualifications. Even as regards the expression of patriotic sentiment, the influence of foreign models may be seen in the form that was adopted, as in the case of the Debate Betwene the Heraldes. Further, England was a backward country, both commercially and industrially, in Tudor times; and the economic literature of the day is full of suggestions for copying expedients that had been devised in Holland or in France. It is also noticeable that the reflection on the problem of sovereignty, though the forms in which it was raised were dictated by English experience, was yet concerned with issues that had been defined by Jesuits and Calvinists in France. Still, when all this is admitted, it is true to say that English thought seems to have been but little affected by the writers who were chiefly making their mark in Italy and France. Bodin’s great work had, indeed, been translated and was used as a text-book at Oxford, but it does not appear to have had more than academic influence. The Prince of Machiavelli may, possibly, have influenced the careers of particular men such as Edmund Dudley or Thomas Cromwell; but, for the most part, the great Florentine lay outside the circle of English thought. He was very frequently alluded to as though he had been the evil genius of political life; but, even as a bugbear, he did not obtain such a tribute of antagonism as was paid in the latter part of the seventeenth century to the commanding figure of Hobbes.

The early writers on political and economic subjects did not confine themselves to formal treatises; of these, there were very few. The thought of the day found incidental expression in literature of every sort: in plays and sermons, as well as in essays, satires and pamphlets. There can be no attempt to deal exhaustively with all the references in contemporary English literature to political and economic topics. On the other hand, some question may be raised as to how far all the fugitive pieces dealing with political and economical subjects which have survived attained to the dignity of literature. It certainly is difficult to find any criterion, and to say with confidence what should be dismissed as merely technical; but it is at least to be remembered that Malynes and Misselden and other writers on such highly technical subjects as foreign exchanges were anxious to obtain attention for their writings in polite and courtly circles; they attempted to deck their argument with literary graces in the fashion of the day. It would be churlish to refuse them a place among English authors.