Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.


This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!