Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Feisal G. Mohamed's "Sovereignty"

Feisal G. Mohamed is Professor of English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where he also serves as coordinator of The Program in Global Early Modern Studies. His previous books include In the Anteroom of Divinity: The Reformation of the Angels from Colet to Milton (2008) and Milton and the Post-secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism (2011). He is a past recipient of a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, which provided second-discipline training in law.

Mohamed applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century England and the Making of the Modern Political Imaginary, and reported the following:
As it happens, page 99 does reveal a thing or two about Sovereignty, even if it also thrusts us into the middle of details requiring some explanation. Here I point to the First Earl of Bridgewater’s worries about the future of the court over which he presided, that of the Council in the Marches of Wales. The court was wrangling over jurisdiction with the ecclesiastical courts and the common law courts, and the four English counties of the Marches were clamoring to be removed from the Council’s jurisdiction altogether. More generally, because the Council was a prerogative court, like Yorkshire’s Council in the North, it was seen as over-extending the crown’s powers in a way impinging upon the liberty of the subject. All of this meant that Egerton feared losing the bulk of the court’s revenue, leaving him unable to maintain Ludlow Castle.

We have never recognized this as an important context for John Milton’s Maske, which Egerton commissions to celebrate his installation and which is first performed at Ludlow Castle in 1633. Milton is celebrating a somewhat embattled judge, and at the same time can be seen as defending a controversial branch of royal prerogative. That is especially surprising in that we often view Milton through the lens of his later anti-Stuart sentiment, so visible in his defenses of the regicide and the English republic established in its wake.

Re-evaluating Milton’s political engagements contributes to one of the major themes the book, which aims to decenter the royalist-republican divide from analyses of the period’s political culture and to emphasize instead the question of sovereignty: over his career, Milton’s affinity for unitary sovereignty could attach itself to the crown, to Parliament, or to Oliver Cromwell in his role as Lord Protector. In its theoretical moments, the book argues that unitary sovereignty is one of the basic postures of modern political thought.

Below is the main text of the page. I do hope that Ford Madox Ford would have been moved to turn to page 100.
Adding to Egerton’s headaches on the status of his Council was its association with the Council in the North, led by the not-yet notorious Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford. Egerton recognized that his fate was shackled to that of his counterpart in Yorkshire, who enjoyed little popularity. In a letter of 1633, he complains to Strafford that a litigant in Star Chamber had “cast out words of disrespect” toward the Council in the North, and makes clear his fear that he might “receive prejudice by being ... wounded through [Wentworth’s] sides.” Resentment of the two councils did not abate, and objectors seized the opportunity to eliminate them with the advent of the Long Parliament in 1640, led by MPs from the four English counties under the jurisdiction of the Council in the Marches. Parliament considered the fate of the two Councils alongside that of Star Chamber. All of these, the argument ran, denied freeborn Englishmen the right of access to common law courts. And the two Councils in particular rankled as the kind of obtrusive exercise of royal prerogative to which Charles was prone.

But the fate of the Councils in the Long Parliament is a later development. The moment with which we are concerned is that of the performance of Milton’s masque, roughly two years after Egerton is appointed president of the Council in the Marches. Even at this earlier juncture, Egerton was cognizant of the precarious position of his Council. Mixed in with papers from the first year of his tenure as president are detailed demonstrations of the Council’s jurisdiction over the four English counties. A 1632 letter from Charles suggests that the king was not insensitive to Egerton’s plight, and that he was willing to press for the jurisdiction of the Council.
Learn more about Sovereignty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue