Jean Bodin was born in Angers in 1529 or 1530 into a prosperous
bourgeois family. His first patron was the bishop, Gabriel Bouvery, a man
of influential connections and a scholar versed in Latin, Greek
and Hebrew. Under his influence, at the age of 15 or 16 years, Bodin was professed in the Carmelite house of Nôtre-Dame at Angers, and then sent with three other young monks to be educated at the house of their Order in Paris.
In Paris, he came into contact with both scholastic and humanist learning. His style shows that he was trained in the old methods of formal argument and the Aristotelianism of the schools, although his writings often have Aristotle as their target. However, he was more drawn towards the new linguistic and historical studies at the Collège des Quatre Langues, later to become the Collège de France. There he acquired an interest in Platonism and a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew literature.
He was dispensed from his vows and left the convent when he was 18 or 19 years old, abandoning the humanities for law. There is some evidence of his involvement with Protestantism, and this may have lain behind the change in his life. It is possible that he was in Geneva in 1552 but it is reasonably clear that he did not long remain sympathetic to the Huguenots in any respect except their persecution. However, his views on religion were so broad and so heterodox at times that his precise religious position remains a matter of debate. He always expressed great repugnance for any policy of forcing men's consciences, and declared in the Heptaplomeres that under such a threat a man was justified in concealing his convictions (Nicodemism). He never risked publishing this work, and indeed the attribution of it to him has been questioned.
As a student and teacher of the civil law, Bodin spent
ten years in Toulouse. His environment was academic, and his activities
those of a scholar, though Roman law had replaced the classics as the
subject of his studies. His entry into the world of affairs came in 1561, when he took up the practice of law, and went to Paris to be called to the bar. He had, of course, to take the oath declaring the Catholic orthodoxy required of every avocat du roi on entering into his office. The climate of legal opinion was very different in Paris from what it had been in Toulouse. In southern France, humanist learning had invaded the law schools. A new jurisprudence, especially associated with Bourges, where Andrea Alciati had taught John Calvin, and with the name of Jacques Cujas, developed out of the humanist passion for recovering and reconstituting the classical past. The great medieval civilians, such as Bartolus or Baldus, had adapted Roman law to the legal requirements of their own age, just as the medieval grammarian had developed Latin. To humanists such as Cujas, this was a work of barbarization, and he aimed at restoring the original text of the corpus iuris civilis. The result of his endeavours was one of the monuments of Renaissance scholarship, and put him in the front rank of sixteenth-century jurists.
Paris lawyers were at once more conservative and more
practical, perhaps because the customary law of the north, though deeply
penetrated by the principles of Roman law, was not a derivation from it,
as was the case in the south, but fundamentally an indigenous growth. Moreover,
legal humanism made no inroads in the University of Paris, as only canon
law was taught there. The Paris lawyer, concerned with the problems
of actual legal practice, perpetuated the Bartolist tradition in his treatment
of Roman law. What interested him more, because of its practical import,
were projects for the codification and unification of the still very localized
law of north France. Such a project, first mooted under Charles VII, was
taken very seriously by Louis XII, who ordered an extensive survey of the
kingdom to collect
the necessary material, and while Bodin was in Paris the project was being actively prosecuted by the Chancellor, Michel de L'Hôpital, despite the political turmoil. This comprehensive attitude to law Bodin found far more sympathetic than the purism and exclusiveness of the law universities. In the Six Books of the Commonwealth, Bartolus and Baldus are the authorities on the civil law to whom he constantly appeals. Along with them, he cites Charles Du Moulins on the customary law with equal respect. Cujas is only quoted in order to be refuted.
Projects of codification were inspired in the first instance by considerations of administrative convenience, but they appealed also to scholars, among them Bodin, who represented another aspect of the French Renaissance than the classicism of Cujas and his school, its universalism. This was quite different from the universalism of the schoolmen, which was a matter of abstractions, and centred on the problem of form. What French humanists of the first half of the sixteenth century were interested in was the integration of concrete facts into comprehensive and comprehensible systems. Religion being the urgent topic of the day, it was the search for the universal and comprehensive religion which most engaged their attention, and encouraged the hope that some sort of agreed formula could be reached which would unite Catholic and Huguenot.
Bodin, the humanist and civilian turned lawyer, embarked
on an enquiry into universal law, but he did not approach it through the
study of texts and judgements, despite his experience both as teacher and
practitioner, for universal law, he thought, was best ascertained through
a study of history. He was not original in this respect, such ideas were
in the air. François Hotman made the same association in his Antitribonien
published in 1567. Bodin had already produced his far more thorough and
systematic study, The Method for the Easy Comprehension of History.
He announced his plan in the Dedication "[The civilians] have described
the laws of no people except the Romans. They should have read Plato, who
thought that one way to establish law and government in a state was for
wise men to collect and
compare all laws of all states, and from them extract and combine the best models." The Method was not just a scholarly examination of sources. Bodin's emphasis was on the comprehension of history. What he wanted to establish was what experience had shown to be the best and most enduring forms of law. "In history the best part of universal law lies hidden; and what is of great importance for the appraisal of laws ? the customs of peoples, and the beginnings, growth, conditions, changes and decline of all states ? are obtained from it. The chief subject-matter of this Method consists of these facts, since nothing is more rewarding in the study of history than what is learnt about the government of states."
Bodin was increasingly interested in governement rather
than law as an end in itself. In 1571, he entered the household of the
King's brother, François duc d'Alençon, as master of requests
and councillor. The Six Books of the Commonwealth show the extent
to which he made use of the opportunities of his position. He inspected
diplomatic correspondence, and conversed with foreign ambassadors or
Frenchmen returned from abroad. He also travelled with Alençon to England, and saw something of the court of Elizabeth and the University of Cambridge. He also accompanied him on a journey to the Netherlands. In the household of Alençon, he was in a world intellectually congenial to him. The Duke was the official leader of the party of the politiques, who held that the state is primarily concerned with the maintenance of order and not with the establishment of true religion. The party therefore stood for the absolute authority of the monarchy to determine the measures necessary to that end, and its unqualified right to demand obedience, as against the doctrine of the right of resistance in the name of religion, held by the Huguenots, or the fanatical demands of the Catholic dévots. A public, official, and largely futile statement of these principles had been made by the Chancellor, Michel de l'Hôpital, in his speech to the Estates of Orleans in 1560, at about the time Bodin came to Paris. In 1562, the Wars of Religion started, and for the space of thirty years France enjoyed neither peace nor order. At this point in his career, Bodin composed the Six Books of the Commonwealth, published in 1576.
Civil war inspired Bodin with a horror of rebellion and the anarchy that comes in its train, and convinced him that the politiques were right. The only remedy was the recognition of the absolute authority of the state "to which, after immortal God, we owe all things". Roman law suggested to him the essential concept of such a power, but the comparative historical studies already undertaken in the Method enabled him to free the concept of sovereignty from its particular Roman associations, and to consider it in general as the mark of all types of states at all times. His conviction, that it is the condition of human well-being that this power must in all circumstances be preserved, led him into the attempt to construct a universal science of politics.
Bodin's political career was blighted by his role in the meeting of the Estates, summoned to meet at Blois in December 1576. The opportunity was the Paix de Monsieur which had brought a lull in hostilities. The politiques hoped to convert it into a lasting peace by negotiating a settlement, but the Catholic League had just been founded by the intransigent conservatives, and it dominated the two privileged orders of the nobles and the clergy. In these circumstances, religious peace was unattainable. Much important business was nevertheless transacted. The Estates discussed a considerable programme of administrative reform, and financial expedients to relieve the chronic inadequacy of the revenues. The results of these deliberations were embodied in the bills of recommendation presented by the three estates, and on these the great Ordinance of Blois of 1579 was based, for the Estates could only petition for legislation. The framing and publication of edicts belonged to the Crown.
Bodin published what happened in a pamphlet entitled Recueil de tout ce qu'il s'est négocié en la compagnie du Tiers Etat de France ... en la Ville de Blois. In an assembly dominated by the Catholic League, of which the King himself, Henry III, was aspiring to become head, Bodin opposed the reopening of the war against the Huguenots, and urged that a solution of the problem could only be achieved by negotiation. He upheld the right of the third estate to dissent from the recommendations of the two privileged orders, despite their opposition. He opposed as damaging to the monarchy the alienation of royal domain as a means of raising money for the prosecution of the war.
Having lost the favour of the King, Bodin was obliged to withdraw from court on the death of the Duc d'Alençon in 1583. He went to take up the office of procurateur au présidial de Lâon which he hadinherited from his brother-in-law in 1578. Provincial seclusion did not, however, mean peace and security. In 1588, on the assassination of its leader, the Duc de Guise, the League started a reign of terror in Lâon as in so many other places in France, and Bodin thought it prudent to join an association which stood for everything in both politics and religion which he utterly condemned. The advent of Henry IV in 1594, and the long-deferred triumph of the policy of the politiques, could not have been anything but profoundly welcome to him. But if he had entertained any hopes of restored favour, his joining the League cost him any advancement. He was still in Lâon when he died towards the end of 1596.
In the years of his retirement, Bodin turned from political writings such as his work on the inflation of the currency, which has given him the reputation of the founder of political economy. In the Novum Theatrum Naturae of 1594, he set out to describe the universal system of nature, and the unpublished Heptaplomeres was a search for the principles of universal religion. While in Lâon he composed the Démonomanie, a study of the influence of good and evil spirits in the world, which has given him the reputation of having been a witch-hunter.
"Now, if there is any means to appease the wrath of God, to gain his blessing, to strike awe into some by the punishment of others, to preserve some from being infected by others, to diminish the number of evil-doers, to make secure the life of the well-disposed, and to punish the most detestable crimes of which the human mind can conceive, it is to punish with the utmost rigor the witches. . . . Now, it is not within the power of princes to pardon a crime which the law of God punishes with the penalty of death --such as are the crimes of witches. Moreover, princes do gravely insult God in pardoning such horrible crimes committed directly against his majesty, seeing that the pettiest prince avenges with death insults against himself. Those too who let the witches escape, or who do not punish them with the utmost rigor, may rest assured that they will be abandoned by God to the mercy of the witches. And the country which shall tolerate this will be scourged with pestilences, famines, and wars; and those which shall take vengeance on the witches will be blessed by him and will make his anger to cease. Therefore it is that one accused of being a witch ought never to be fully acquitted and set free unless the calumny of the accuser is clearer than the sun, inasmuch as the proof of such crimes is so obscure and so difficult that not one witch in a million would be accused or punished if the procedure were governed by the ordinary rules."
Bodin, Jean. De la démonomanie des sorciers . Abridged trans.: On the Demon-Mania of Witches. Ed. Jonathan Pearl and Randy Scott (Toronto, Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995) early editions in French and Italian are in ND Special Collections room
Six Books of the Commonwealth, abridged and translated by M. J. Tooley
Jean Bodin, Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, ed. Maron Leathers Daniels Kuntz (Princeton, 1975)
A salutary example
A good instance of how obsessional scholars can distort their sources is provided by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger, "Birth Control: The Political-Economic Rationale behind Jean Bodin's Démonomanie", History of Political Economy 31 (1999) 423-448
For a critique, see my unpublished essay, "Witches, midwives, and Jean Bodin's rationality: an examination of the Heinsohn-Steiger thesis", where further bibliography will be found
For a popularized version of Heinsohn and Steiger, see article on website, The Christian Heritage.
Cf. the definition of "pseudohistory" offered by the Skeptic's Dictionary
Christopher Baxter, "Jean Bodin's De la Démonomanie des sorciers: The Logic of Persecution", in Sydney Angelo (ed.), The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft (London, 1977) 76-105.
Ann Blair, The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science (Princeton, 1997)
Ursula Lange, Untersuchungen zu Bodins Démonomanie (Frankfurt/Main, 1970)
E. W. Monter, "Inflation and witchcraft: The case of Jean Bodin", in T.K.Rabb and J.E. Seigel, eds., Action and Conviction in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, 1969) 371-389
Denis P. O'Brien, "Bodin's Analysis of Inflation", History of Political Economy 32 (2000) 267-292
Jonathan Pearl, The Crime of Crimes: Demonology and Politics in France, 1560-1620 (Waterloo, 1999)
Jonathan L. Pearl, "Humanism and Satanism. Jean Bodin's Contribution to the Witchcraft Crisis", in Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 19 (1982) 541-548
Jonathan L. Pearl, "Le rôle enigmatique de "la Démonomanie" dans la chasse aux sorciers", in Jean Bodin. Actes du Colloque Interdisciplinaire d'Angers (24-27 Mai1984), Vol II. (Angers, 1985) 403-410
Jonathan L. Pearl, "Bodin's Advice to Judges in Witchcraft Cases", in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History 16 (1989) 95-102
Maxime Préaud, "La Démonomanie des Sorciers.
Fille de la République", in Jean Bodin. Actes du Colloque Interdisciplinaire
d'Angers (24-27 Mai 1984), Vol II., (Angers, 1985) 419-425.