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Commonwealth: the Social, Cultural, and Conceptual Contexts of an Early Modern Keyword
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Professor Jennifer Richards
Early Modern Research Group
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The article explores ‘commonwealth’ both as a term and a conceptual field across the early modern period, with a particular focus on the Anglophone world. The shifts of usage of ‘commonwealth’ are explored, from a term used to describe the polity, to one used to describe a particular, republican form of polity, through to its eclipse in the eighteenth century by other terms such as ‘nation’ and ‘state’. But the article also investigates the variety of usages during any one time, especially at moments of crisis, and the network of related terms that constituted ‘commonwealth’. That investigation requires, it is argued, not just a textual approach but one that embraces social custom and practice, as well as the study of literary and visual forms through which the keyword ‘commonwealth’ was constructed. The article emphasizes the importance of social context to language; the forms, metaphors and images used to describe and depict the polity; and to show how linguistic change could occur through the transmutation of elements of the conceptual field that endowed the keyword with its meaning.
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