SRS Book Series Interviews: Ian Campbell and Floris Verhaart

February 15, 2022
By SRS Book Series

In our latest interview with authors from the Society for Renaissance Studies book series, we talk to Ian Campbell and Floris Verhaart about their forthcoming book Protestant Politics Beyond Calvin, the appeal of early modern studies and advice to PhD students starting out in intellectual history.


1) What drew you towards Renaissance and Early Modern studies in general, and then intellectual history in particular?

IC: The first thing that drew me to early modern studies was that, while early modern society was very different to my own, it was possible to know a great deal about it because of the survival of voluminous primary sources. It seemed to me to be possible to understand more about the motivations and ideals of individuals in early modernity, in comparison to earlier periods, and yet at the same time those ideals and motivations were often rather alien ones.

FV: As a teenager, I was drawn towards classical antiquity and Latin and Greek literature, but also read many books – both fiction and non-fiction – about early modern voyages of discovery. I decided to study classics at Leiden University, where one of my professors was Karl Enenkel. In an introduction to neo-Latin studies, he discussed the De insulis in mari Indico nuper inventis, a Latin translation of Columbus’ account of his first voyage to the Americas. Karl explained how the original and especially its translation served to inform European readers about this hitherto unknown new world. Not only did this example bring together my own perhaps rather naïve interests in Latin and exploration; it also made me realise how the language of ancient Rome and classical culture in general provided an important basis for cultural, intellectual, and religious interaction between people from hugely different backgrounds. This fascination is still largely a driving force behind my interest in Renaissance and Early Modern studies, as I keep finding new ways in which Latin played a culturally significant role. Our book, which brings together important highlights of two centuries of discussion of violence and faith in Latin, is an illustration of this.


2) Apart from your own, what book would you recommend for people to read to learn more about your field of study?

IC: Sarah Mortimer has just published a general account of the history of political thought in Europe that I would highly recommend: Sarah Mortimer, Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (1517-1625) (Oxford University Press, 2021).

FV: Besides my work on the religious history of the early modern world, I am also particularly interested in the history of (classical) scholarship. It may therefore not come as a big surprise that I am a big fan of Anthony Grafton’s work. I love how in so many of his essays he builds up a careful and insightful portrait of early modern scholars to tell an important story about the Renaissance world and I find I keep going back to his writings as my own research develops. With regards to the topic of this book, the most comprehensive introduction to early modern political thought is still Quentin Skinner’s The Foundation of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 1978), but I suspect most people reading this interview know it very, very well.


3) What are the key facts or arguments from your book that you would like people to take away?

IC: Those who have argued that the Reformed (or Calvinists) were fanatical holy warriors who stood outside the European just war tradition are wrong. Reformed writing on warfare was very much part of the European just war tradition, and most writing by Reformed theologians on war sought to limit its extent and severity. There are distinctive qualities to this Reformed writing on war. We are probably most familiar with the concept of natural law which was used heavily by early modern Catholic writers on just war, e.g., Francisco Vitoria. Reformed theologians writing on war preferred to avoid using the concept of natural law and instead sought out biblical texts that established political duties. Therefore, most turned to Deuteronomy 20 to figure out how God wanted humans to wage war, and they believed that this text meant that God wanted wars to be limited and moderate, rather than total. Nevertheless, there were a small number of Reformed theologians living in very tense political circumstances for whom the predictions of war against the Antichrist (the Devil’s chief servant) in Revelation was actually a command that the Antichrist should be fought.

FV: Whilst working on this book, I was constantly struck by how pragmatic many Reformed theologians were in their political thinking. On the face of it, they were trying to formulate rules that could be applied regardless of the circumstances, but the answers they give to fundamental questions about war and peace are very clearly influenced by their own regional and political context – Reformed thinkers quickly change their views about resistance theory when a country’s worldly authority is in Protestant hands. Perhaps more importantly, the book aims to show the contrast between Latin sources and writings in the vernacular (and the importance of the former). The Reformed have been described by, for instance Michael Walzer and Roland Bainton, as religious zealots with extreme views on the justification of violence far removed from what could be considered mainstream in the history of just war theories, but the material we have looked at was surprisingly – perhaps sometimes even slightly disappointingly! – nuanced and balanced. As someone whose background is partly in literary studies, I have also found it important to include at least one poetic source, namely an excerpt from the Gustavis by Venceslaus Clemens (d. 1637). Poetry written in Latin was an important part of learned debate and many Reformed thinkers such as George Buchanan (1506-1582) and Theodore Beza (1519-1605) devoted time to writing poems ranging from serious didactic epics to scurrilous epigrams that poke fun at the Catholic clergy. Such poems are usually studied in complete isolation from theoretical treatises written in prose even though the former often communicate an author’s ideas at least as effectively as the latter. The book, therefore, also encourages intellectual historians to pay more attention to the stylistic and formal aspects of our textual source material – prose and poetry – rather than just the ideas they contain.


4) How did your scholarly journey develop over the course of your research for this book? Did you end up where you always intended to?

IC: Initially, I expected Reformed theologians to be much more similar to Catholic theologians than they turned out to be. I thought that Reformed intellectuals, like Samuel Rutherford (author of Lex Rex), who mobilised a lot of Catholic natural law in their own arguments were normal Reformed theologians rather than rather innovative and daring ones. Consequently, I understand much better now that there are distinct, but not isolated, Reformed and Catholic traditions in political thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

FV: Ian and I worked on this book as part of a project with the title War and the Supernatural in Early Modern Europe ( , 2016-2020), funded by the European Research Council and based at Queen’s University Belfast. When I started, I had just finished a doctoral thesis on eighteenth-century debates on the place of classical learning in contemporary society and the consequences of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns for the study of ancient Latin and Greek literature. I did not have much training in religious history. The fact that much of my job for the project as a whole, and this book in particular, involved translating large selections of texts was an ideal way for me to develop as a scholar and find my feet in a new discipline. Translations are sometimes looked down upon a bit in academic publishing, but editing and translating a text and commenting on it is a great way to familiarise oneself with primary source material. You cannot skip difficult or obscure passages and simply select from your source what you need for the argument of your book or article. You have to translate your source as a whole. Translating texts thus often leads to the realisation that even some of the best-known texts still contain many elements that are poorly understood. During the next couple of years, I will hopefully have time to work on a few articles inspired by those elements. One such article that I am currently preparing is about Reformed ideas on issues of conscience for individual soldiers.


5) What were the most fruitful sources you found in your research?

IC: A secondary source to which I owe a great deal is Michael Becker’s splendid Kriegsrecht im frühneuzeitlichen Protestantismus: Eine Untersuchung zum Beitrag lutherischer und reformierter Theologen, Juristen un anderer Gelehrter zur Kriegsrechtsliteratur im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017).  It is a most impressive piece of scholarship.

FV: I am a big fan of Renaissance commentaries on biblical and classical texts. They are a great way of learning about how authors connected different texts and different fields of knowledge with one another. One of my first publications was about the French humanist Pierre Gaultier Chabot (1516-1598?), who published a huge commentary on Horace’s work. To him, the work of this Latin poet was just a starting point for providing his readers with a whole range of information on astronomy, geography and many other disciplines. At least as fascinating is how sly commentators always seem to succeed in finding implicit and explicit ways of presenting key texts in such a way that they support their own agenda. An example from our book is the interpretation of David Pareus (1548-1622) of Romans 13. This is the biblical passage par excellence to maintain subjects should obey the worldly authority of their monarch even if he or she has a different religion and yet Pareus used it as a starting point to present his view that in many circumstances it was perfectly acceptable for subjects to rise up against worldly authority, a view that led to much controversy, e.g., in Stuart England.


6) Do you have a favourite discovery or favourite fact from your research?

IC: I think my favourite thing about our collection is the way that students will be able see a range of Reformed theological views across Europe. For example, Lambert Daneau, writing in the 1570s while teaching in the Academy at Geneva, insisted that the struggle against the Antichrist was spiritual rather than physical. He believed that it was wrong to seek to advance Christianity by violence. The position of David Pareus, teaching at the University of Heidelberg in the first decade of the seventeenth century, was different: he thought that Revelation 17:16 actively commanded Christian kings to wage war on the papacy and its servants. Most Reformed theologians did not share Pareus’s view; nevertheless, this indicates how hot the theological temperature was becoming in the Palatinate in the years before the Thirty Years War.


7) What are you working on now?

IC: I am working on a companion volume to the present one, which will be called Beyond Aquinas: Franciscans and Scotists on War and Politics in the Counter Reformation. When we speak about Catholic political thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we very often mean Jesuit and Dominican political thought; traditions aligned with the theology of Thomas Aquinas. But a lot of Franciscans were writing scholastic theology that touched on politics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and this theology looked not to Aquinas but to John Duns Scotus. Consequently, this Franciscan political thought operated with views of virtue, natural law, and war very different to those of their Jesuit and Dominican contemporaries. I hope this book will re-shape the way we think about Catholic political thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

FV: I am currently a Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow based at University College Cork, working on the project Enemies of the Text: Jean Hardouin and the Modernisation of the Humanities. Jean Hardouin (1646-1729) may be known to some as the Jesuit who developed a wild conspiracy theory and argued that virtually all literature from classical antiquity had been forged by Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages. He is usually treated as an eccentric footnote in the history of learning, but my book intends to change that. First of all, it will offer a reappraisal of Hardouin’s career. He may have become notorious for his conspiracy theory, but he was also an eminent expert in numismatics, philology, and church history who played an important role in the contemporary republic of letters. Secondly, the reception of his work will be used as a case study of the interaction between the eighteenth-century public sphere, notions of expert knowledge, and scholarly innovation. It is my hypothesis that this combination was of huge importance for a process of modernisation in those fields of knowledge that depend on textual research, such as history, philology, and theology. The third element of the book project is the influence of Hardouin’s pseudohistory during the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries on, for instance, Anatoly Fomenko (1945-) who likewise questions accepted notions of historical chronology.


8) If you were not an early modernist, is there any other period or history or historical field you would like to work on?

FV: My first degree was in classics, and I would have probably continued in that field if I had not switched to studying the early modern world.


9) Is it necessary to be able to read and understand Latin to work in Renaissance / early modern studies?

IC: Latin was the international language of the European intellectual elite in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A knowledge of Latin allows you to follow debates across national borders: I find this vital to my research.

FV: Latin was the language of the cultural and intellectual elite of Europe and also played an important role in interactions between the European continent and the wider world. Although writings in the vernacular may have been vital for cultural interaction on a local or regional level or the level of an early modern state, depending on how widely a particular vernacular was used and understood, Latin was hugely important for interactions on a pan-European and sometimes even global level. It is a bit like a hub-and-spoke system, in which Latin acts as the spokes between different hubs. If you only pay attention to sources in the vernacular you may be able to understand a particular discourse very well within a particular hub, but you lose sight of how the discourse within that hub was connected to other hubs.


10) If you could instantly acquire one skill or ability to help your research, what would it be?

IC: I wish I could learn languages faster!


11) Is there any advice you would give to PhD students or early career researchers for finding their feet or developing their work in your field?

IC: Historians need to be in complete control of a particular field of historical knowledge thanks to their meticulous research, in a way that one’s peers recognise as authoritative, while at the same time being able to make truthful, meaningful and useful generalisations that are viable across fields. It is a very difficult balance to strike. I find that listening to papers outside my own field helps.

FV: It feels a bit presumptuous to give any advice since I myself am still a postdoc. I do feel it can be helpful when applying for postdoctoral positions to have a particular skillset that can be applied in different contexts and fields. I believe my background in classics and knowledge of Latin has allowed me to get involved in very different (book) projects on the history of religious and political thought (namely War and the Supernatural), but also on, for instance, the history of scholarship and the history of sex and sexuality. Of course, such a broadly applicable skill does not have to be linguistic in nature; it can also be expertise in the digital humanities or good statistic skills. It makes you less dependent on academic job opportunities and postdocs in one particular subdiscipline and helps you develop as a more rounded scholar.


Ian Campbell is Senior Lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests include early modern British and Irish history; political thought and intellectual history; the history of race.

Floris Verhaart is a Government of Ireland Research Fellow in the School of History at University College Cork. His research interests are the intellectual and religious history of Europe, especially the Dutch Republic, Britain, and France

Their book, Protestant Politics Beyond Calvin: Reformed Theologians on War in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries will be available from February 28th 2022. Pre-order your copy here:

Posted in