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Nicholas Breton and the English Self

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Conny Loder

Nicholas Breton (1545/55-1626?) was one of the most prolific writers of the Early Modern period and left behind a vast œuvre that is, however, largely neglected today. Breton addresses instrumental questions of his time, especially those of man’s identity. This study concentrates on a selection of Breton’s political texts in which Breton contrasts the Self against the Other. These texts not only stigmatise the Other as the undesired, the unknown and the indecipherable, but also construct a patriotic and uniform English identity to be imitated by all Englishmen and Englishwomen: the English Self.

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2. Setting the scene: the concept of man

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In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italy began to take the lead in two con- cerns that shaped Europe and became known as humanism and the Renaissance. Italian philosophers reflected not only on the ideal government but also on the ideal man, the vir virtutis. Within humanism the view of an ideal man had sur- passed the negative view of St. Augustine. The early Christian theologian put forward a view of man as a fallen man when he stressed man’s evil disposition. Since man had disobeyed God he had brought sin and damnation upon future generations. 27 Contrary to this, humanism focused on the far more positive de- piction of man as can be found in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Pico’s Oration of the Dignity of Man endows man with skills for outstanding achievements: Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, con- strained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth,...

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