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John Selden: From radical to conservative, but always an innovator

John Selden is famous, but not at all well known. His fame was earned as a lawyer (one of the cleverest, and absolutely the most learned, in 17th-century England), and as an MP who played a significant role in English political history from the 1620s to the 1640s. In the earlier period he helped to lead the House of Commons’s opposition to Charles I, being awarded several years of imprisonment in the Tower of London for his pains; but in the 1640s his energies turned more to opposing abuses of parliamentary power, such as the “Act of Attainder” against the Earl of Strafford — a kind of murder by legislative decree — or the exclusion of bishops from the Lords.

He also earned a place in English religious history, through his decisive interventions in the Westminster Assembly. This was an advisory body, set up by Parliament in 1643 in order to work out how to convert an episcopal Church of England into a Presbyterian one. Again and again, Selden succeeded in blocking or overturning the arguments of the dominant Scottish Presbyterians, who had to go scurrying back to their studies to do more homework. The eventual changes to the system of Church government were, as a result, much weaker than they would otherwise have been.

Yet at the same time Selden is not well known, at least not in the way that he would have wanted to be. He was a man of astonishing polymathic knowledge, equally at home with Greek calendar systems, Anglo-Saxon poems and Arabic chronicles. He acquired such an expertise in the study of Jewish texts, including the Talmud, the Aramaic Targums and many densely written rabbinical commentaries, that he was referred to, sardonically but also appreciatively, as England’s Chief Rabbi; and the information he gleaned from these studies was put to use in a string of works in Latin, discussing such matters as Jewish testamentary law and the nature and powers of the Sanhedrin. The Latin-reading European “republic of letters” paid warm tribute — despite the fact that his Latin was peculiarly rebarbative, stuffed with nonce-words and recondite allusions. But that Latin-reading public died out a long time ago, and these books now gather dust on the shelves.

For ordinary readers today just a handful of works are accessible, having been written in English or translated into it: the Historie of Tithes, a learned demolition of the idea that the Church could demand tithes by divine right; Mare clausum, a short treatise on the international law of the sea, which has been cited quite recently in relation to China’s attempts to lay claim to large parts of the South China Sea; and Table-Talk. This last text is the only one to have remained popular from the 17th century to the present: it gives Selden’s penetrating comments on a great range of topics, imbued with his caustic common sense.
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