- George Buchanan: Political Thought in Early Modern Britain and Europe by Caroline Erskine and Roger A. Mason, eds
Since Quentin Skinner started revising the history of European political theory, interest in George Buchanan’s works has revived. This recent re-examination of his ideas has been in the long-term context of developing modern political ideas. This has resulted in some very welcome new editions of his works with English translations, especially the De Iure, his Political poetry, and his paraphrases of the Psalms, as well as an ongoing series of [End Page 235] conferences on issues relating to his ideas and influence. Because great poets such as Edmund Spenser are known to have read Buchanan’s work, these studies have spread into the area of literary interpretation as well as history in countries across Europe including the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Italy and this volume contains material on all of these.
Buchanan’s reputation has waxed and waned since the sixteenth century, as Esther Mijers shows in her paper on the fight over his ideas between Jacobites and Edinburgh scholars in the eighteenth century. At times, he evidently became no more than a prestigious name in the history of Scotland – one of a pantheon of civil and religious liberty – rather than a thinker whose arguments were still important. Although, as Caroline Erskine shows, Buchanan may never be seen as worthy of inclusion in the canon of resistance theory that focuses on John Locke and Algernon Sidney, and it may never be possible to estimate how much of his ideas they and others absorbed, he continued to be a figure who was anathematized by royalists such as George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh for his dangerous theories. Among the matters that worried Buchanan’s successors were the principles of assassination, which Colin Kidd has carefully considered over a four-hundred-year period.
This set of studies is the belated outcome of a conference held on the 500th anniversary of Buchanan’s birth (2006). The contributions are of uneven interest because in some cases they are updated and embellished versions of material already in print elsewhere and in others overtaken by later works on the topics. Claire Jackson’s entertaining and instructive account of Sir James Turner’s dismissal of Buchanan to the pains of Hell in a series of fictional letters, however, is a useful development of the more general ideas she had already put into print in Restoration Scotland, 1660–1690: Royalist Politics, Religion and Ideas (Boydell, 2003).
Some subjects tackled are unlikely ever to be finally resolved – whether, for example, Buchanan’s theory of resistance was the most extreme made in his time or whether his Revolution principles were the inspiration of the Covenanters and later reformers, both of which are considered by authors in this volume who come to differing conclusions. Others are perhaps being assumed to be canonical when the evidence is ambiguous.
Certain papers included provide a new approach: Tricia McElroy has attempted to elucidate Buchanan’s most notorious work on Mary, Queen of Scots, by considering its political strategy as a fictitious criminal narrative and also by comparing its structure to his earlier play, Baptistes. While one must assume that Buchanan used all the literary skills he had honed in his earlier life, it seems unlikely that he would have produced a piece of propaganda over whose later fate he had no control, and that he must have known would show him apparently biting the hand that fed him. [End Page 236]
The most important and potentially most interesting papers for an English speaking audience are probably those that are concerned with areas where there have been fewer studies in English of contemporary political theories. Robert von Friedeburg’s study of Buchanan as a monarchomach – compared to the numerous warring German political thinkers, such as the Calvinist jurist Johannes Althusius, the Lutheran theologian Johan Gerhard, the jurist Christoph Besold, and the...