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Nicholas Breton and the English Self


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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6. Breton’s Self and Politics


As the previous chapter shows, Breton focuses on shaping adequate subjects. The underlying concept of imitation by examples relies in the concept of analo- gies. In the sixteenth century, analogies, Foucault argues in the Order of Things, constituted man’s perception of his own existence, with one of the most potent analogies being the one of microcosm and macrocosm. 729 When authority shaped the individual within this analogy, it also controlled it. 730 One means of political control was the creation of a common consciousness, which implanted an awareness of community into the individual. This chapter will show that Breton’s political texts put forward arguments for a common consciousness that intends to nullify individuality. With the succession of James I to the English throne, English and Scottish microcosms changed. While Englishmen faced a foreigner as their monarch, Scotsmen were now ruled from afar. Both sides faced social, economic and po- litical changes in the early seventeenth century. While Englishmen had to adapt to yet another political and religious agenda, they were also confronted with a new moral code. When Keith Thomas argues that it was conscience in the seventeenth century that maintained political and social order, he draws attention to Early Modern man’s complex moral dilemma. 731 For man in the seventeenth century, following one’s conscience meant being able to take a logical and a morally correct decision. Conscience therefore was “an act of deliberate judgment” and the illogical or morally incorrect decision implied not only incapability in matters of judgment,...

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