The Mystery of Jean Bodin

Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime (Colloquium Heptaplomeres de Rerum Sublimium Arcanis Abditis) annotations, and critical readings by

by Jean Bodin, translated with an introduction, Marion Leathers Daniels Kuntz
Princeton University Press, 509 pp., $25.00

The book here presented in translation was once a secret, disseminated in manuscript copies among a few chosen spirits, and referred to with bated breath, if mentioned at all, though it may have been a power in the background, or the underground. It is in fact the Heptaplomeres, written by Jean Bodin in the late sixteenth century. The Latin text was not printed until 1857. A partial French translation appeared in 1914. There has been no English translation until now, when the Heptaplomeres in full is at last revealed to the English-speaking world.

Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a French lawyer, possibly of Jewish descent on his mother’s side, was confronted like all his generation with the problem of the wars of religion. His early life is obscure, but he would seem to have moved from Catholicism to an interest in Reform, and to have found a compromise in the party of the politiques, believers in religious toleration. In 1571 he became associated with François de Valois, youngest son of Catherine de’ Medici, the leader or figurehead of the politique party. Bodin became completely identified with François and the politiques. He was with the French prince in England during his unsuccessful courtship of Queen Elizabeth I; he followed François to Antwerp and was a prominent member of his entourage during his brief reign as Duke of Brabant, an abortive attempt to found a state in which religious toleration would be practiced.

The collapse of that regime in 1584 ruined the hopes of the politiques and broke Bodin’s career. In the dark years of the end of the century he was in eclipse, and somewhat sullied his earlier liberal reputation by declaring after the death of Henri III for Mayenne and the Catholic League, though he joined Navarre, now Henri IV, as soon as he began to be successful and had abjured Protestantism.

Bodin was one of the most learned men of his age, author of important books on history and on political theory. He believed in monarchy as the best form of government and as the best for France; his legal definitions of sovereignty in his Methodus (1566) and République (1576) were very influential. His sense of order is also apparent in his survey of universal nature, the Universae naturae theatrum (1596), arranged under headings which recall those of Renaissance memory-theaters. Historians of thought are aware of Bodin’s many-sided mind, but the work of his which has come into prominence today, owing to the contemporary interest in witchcraft, is his De la démonomanie des sorciers (1580). For this liberal man of encyclopedic culture believed intensely in the reality of magic, and of the witches’ sabbath, and by his extreme intolerance of supposed witches was highly influential in fomenting the terrible witch craze.

In the Heptaplomeres, Bodin gives his secret views on religion, and as Marion Kuntz rightly remarks in her introduction, it connects with all his other works, including the Démonomanie. As a key to the state of mind …

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Bodin’s Demons March 3, 1977