Jean Bodin

I think I may finally have finished with Jean Bodin. Bodin’s Six Livres de la République is probably more talked about than read, and there is no modern English translation of the complete work. (There is an abridged edition from 1955, and four chapters are translated in the Cambridge History of Political Thought series as On Sovereignty). 

Bodin wrote it, originally, in French in 1576. He then produced his own Latin version in 1586 as De republica libri sex. But he didn’t simply translate it; rather he reworked it, revising some formulations, adding and deleting. It’s been convincingly argued that scholarly work on this text needs to take account of both the French and Latin versions.

There is a full English translation, made in 1606 by Richard Knolles. But this is not a translation of either the French or the Latin, but rather Knolles produced a composite text that drew on both.

What this means is that a reference in any one of these texts can be extremely difficult to find in any of the others – the books are very long (the French edition has a separate volume for each) and the chapters within them, long. There is no other subdivision. There is no critical edition or parallel French/Latin edition. I’ve spent a lot of time working on these different texts.

So the section on Bodin has ended up with references to all three texts – principally the French, with variations noted to the Latin, and, more occasionally, a direct reference to the English because this was, I thought, revealing for the terms being forged in English itself. While many (most?) political writers at the time still read Latin, the distinctiveness of vernacular languages was becoming more and more important. So majestas and souverainité, which Knolles’s composite sometimes ends up rendering as sovereign majesty. But are sovereignty and majesty the same thing? Not everyone thought so. I’ve ended up with quite a lot of comparison of vocabulary between the Latin and French – Bodin does not translate some terms into Latin in the way that might be expected, given 16th century Latin, but seems to be aiming for a more classical style.

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