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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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7. Breton and the Market Place


The previous chapter argues that Breton’s assessment of man connects to the Elizabethan mindset of thinking in analogies, one of which is the organic meta- phor. The aim of this final chapter is to discuss how Breton can be read as ex- emplary of the Early Modern perception that saw capitalist egotism as a means to destroy established social structures. As is pointed out in chapter 6, Wells ar- gues that “the fragility of civilisation is due, not to economic conditions, or false ideology, but to some latent barbarism lurking in our ancestral psyche.” 940 How- ever, economy did influence the formation of Early Modern society to a greater extent than Wells claims. This influence emerged above all in London. Some Early Modern writers feared that capitalist tendencies would not only dissolve the English community, but also infiltrate the construction of the English Self. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice or Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair are only two examples that attack mercantilism; the figure of the merchant became the stock character of the English stage, William H. Sherman observes. 941 Non-dramatic texts addressed mercantile aspects as well. Reflections on mercantilism and wealth also dominate Breton’s works. Although his dogma of economic mod- esty appears primarily as Christian modesty, Breton addresses mercantilism and its consequences in the context of collectivism. During Elizabeth’s reign, the English population exploded, growing by al- most one-third. 942 This increased not only labour supply, but also demand for goods. “After 1550, new markets for English goods and new products...

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