Biography of Bodin

Bust of Jean BodinJean Bodin, jurist, political and natural philosopher, historian, economist, demonologist and much else besides was one of the most remarkable intellectual figures of the sixteenth century. Yet many details of his life are uncertain. The same is, of course, true of other leading figures in Renaissance Europe, and especially men of letters, about aspects of whose lives the evidence is often slight or ambiguous. But the ambiguity in Bodin’s case is compounded by the fact that his was a peculiarly common name. At a number of important junctures during his career other ‘Jean Bodins’ appear, though scholars continue to debate whether on every such occasion these were indeed persons other than the Bodin whose life concerns us here. What follows is an attempt to narrate that life whilst noting along the way episodes where important questions of identification and scholarly disagreement arise.

Bodin was sixty-six years of age at the time of his death in 1596. He was therefore born in 1529 or 1530. His father was a successful businessman in the textile trade at Angers in western France. His mother came from a neighbouring village; the view once canvassed that she was a Jewess is now discredited. Jean Bodin had four sisters and two brothers, both older than he. One of them was also called Jean, an early instance of the nomenclatural duplication that would dog the philosopher throughout his life.

A provincial capital accommodating an array of royal courts as well as a university dominated by its law faculty, Angers offered ample opportunities for men of legal training. The presence of clerics, secular and regular, was also strong in the municipality, thanks to its cathedral, its churches, its monastic houses. While Bodin could count legal practitioners amongst his forebears, an uncle of his seems to have been almoner of the Carmelites, and in circa 1543 the young Bodin entered the friary of that order as a novice. Some two years later he proceeded from Angers to the Carmelite house in Paris which was located within a stone’s throw of the city’s leading educational institutions. In the colleges of Paris and amongst the student body mid sixteenth-century responses to humanist scholarship were becoming increasingly dynamic. This was conspicuously the case at the Collège de Presles where the charismatic controversialist Pierre de la Ramée (Petrus Ramus) was in the early stages of a teaching career characterised by powerful advocacy of dialectical method. Novices such as Bodin were intended to pursue their studies within the confines of their own establishments; but it seems likely that to some degree he experienced the impact of Ramus’s teaching at first hand. He may also have been exposed to the linguistic and intellectual challenges and opportunities recently made available through such developments as the creation of royal lectureships in Greek and Hebrew.

In 1548 a Jean Bodin was summoned before France’s recently constituted tribunal for suppression of heresy, the Chambre Ardente, and imprisoned on suspicion of consorting with ‘lutherans’. The balance of expert opinion inclines to the view that this was indeed our young Angevin, and that the bishop of Angers, Gabriel Bouvery, was instrumental in procuring his release. He would seem also at this time to have been released from the vows of his novitiate. Less persuasive is the case for his having migrated to Geneva, on the strength of his identification with the ‘Maître Jehan Boudin, de Sainct-Amand en Bourbonnex’ who took up residence there in 1552, or the ‘Jehan Bodin, natif de la ville de Sainct-Amand, diocese de Bourges’ who married a widow, Typhène Renaud, in Geneva at that same time. The greater likelihood appears to be that upon his release Jean Bodin returned to Angers under Bishop Bouvery’s protection. He may then have commenced legal studies at the University of his native town. What is certain is that in the course of the early 1550s he transferred to the University of Toulouse with its outstanding reputation in the fields of canon and civil law. There Bodin completed his studies and embarked upon a teaching career.

Eager to establish his credentials in the fashionable sphere of humanist learning, Bodin published in 1555 a Latin translation of a Greek poem on hunting, the Cynegetica, by the third century Syrian poet Oppian of Apamea. To his translation he appended a substantial commentary replete with literary, linguistic and philosophical learning. Hostile critics alleged, however, that he had plagiarised the work of France’s leading Greek scholar of the day and sometime holder of one of the royal lectureships, Adrien Turnèbe. Four years later Bodin delivered an oration before the Senate of Toulouse at the culmination of a campaign to establish a college to deliver a humanist education in the town. Subsequently published, the Oratio has been construed as amounting to a job application for the headship of the proposed college. Whatever his intention in delivering it, Bodin soon afterwards left Toulouse and returned to the kingdom’s capital to begin practising as a barrister (avocat) in France’s highest court of law, the Paris Parlement.

In 1562 barristers of the Parlement were required formally to declare their allegiance to the Catholic faith. The name ‘Jehan Bodin’ appears twice on the relevant list; in all probability one of these references is to the Angevin. However, Bodin would appear not to have been an accomplished pleader of clients’ cases and to have turned increasingly towards developing his career in other ways. Whilst at Toulouse he had already drafted treatises on subjects in Roman law and had also embarked upon a major analysis in the field of comparative or ‘universal’ law. The indications are unmistakable that his approach to such subjects was strongly informed by the methodologies to which he had been exposed during his student years.

In 1566 Bodin published the first of his major works, the Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (Method for the easy understanding of history). Contemporary interest in ‘the art of history’ (ars historica) ran high, but Bodin’s interpretation of the subject-area was exceptionally broad. There were, he pronounced, three kinds of history: human, natural, and divine. The pronouncement has sometimes been seen as constituting an agenda for his own future work which did, indeed, yield distinct treatises in all three areas. Even so, all three figured plainly in the Methodus itself. The longest chapter was devoted to questions of political constitutions and modes of government to which he would return in the best-known of his major treatises. Also treated at length in the Methodus were his anthropological ideas often described as his theory of ‘climate’, but presented by him as specifying human characteristics which ‘are drawn from nature’. Thirdly, the work included a sustained examination of the creation of the universe and the origins of time, which involved issues concerning the nature of God and His continued engagement with humanity at large.