HomeThe Prince, the Tyrant, the Despot: figures of the Sovereign in Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

HomeThe Prince, the Tyrant, the Despot: figures of the Sovereign in Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

The Prince, the Tyrant, the Despot: figures of the Sovereign in Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Le prince, le tyran, le despote : figures du souverain en Europe de la Renaissance aux Lumières (1500-1800)

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Published on Friday, December 18, 2015


Ce colloque international réunira historiens, philosophes et littéraires autour de la question de la naissance de la souveraineté en Europe à la période moderne, et des tensions idéologiques qu'elle fait naître. Son objet est double. Historiographique : rassembler des représentant(e)s des écoles française, italienne et anglo-saxonne qui travaillent sur les notions de souveraineté, d’Etat de droit (rule of law) et de république avec des perspectives parfois différentes. Politique : repenser historiquement, à l’ère de l’Europe et de la mondialisation, les voies de la gouvernance les plus efficaces et les plus justes possible.


Pluridisciplinary international conference organised by the CREA-EA370 (Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) in partnership with PRISMES (La Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3), CAS (Toulouse Jean Jaurès), supported by Nanterre English Department (UFR LLCER), ED 138 and CHISCO-ED395 (Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense), the IRCL-UMR 5186 (Paul Valéry Montpellier 3/CNRS) and the SAGEF


In the 16th century, French as well as English kings intended to assert the weight of their authority in opposition to the imperial aspirations of the Pope and of Charles V of Spain. Then came the turn of the seven Northern provinces which claimed their independence from Philip II. The Republic of the United Provinces was born in 1581. In this context of fusion among territorial entities, a number of voices rose in defense of the legitimacy of a prince’s absolute power and established the notion of sovereignty. In the aftermath of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre in Paris, Jean Bodin defined this notion as “the Republic’s absolute and perpetual power”. His theses were translated into Latin and read all over the continent. Sovereignty thus came to designate the means used by the Republic to defend itself against external threats, but also against internal conflicts like peasant rebellions, aristocratic uprisings, succession wars or religious troubles. 

Such efforts of theorization stemmed from the wish to give the prince’s authority a legal basis; for absolutists, it meant that the sovereign’s will was law. These transformations entailed a revision of the legal framework inherited from the Middle Ages, when the Justinian Corpus was rediscovered at the end of the 11th century in Italy. Revisiting a whole historiographical school incarnated by the German historian Ernst Kantorowicz, for whom the modern State emerged from Roman imperial law, some scholars have evidenced the vast enterprise to revise and adapt Roman law throughout the 16th c. Such was the contribution of the French lawyers of the School of Bourges as studied by the historians Allen, Salmon, Giesey and Kelley; at about the same time in England were published the works of Fortescue (1385-1479) who had compiled vernacular law. His work paved the way to that of the 17th c. lawyers, among whom Sir Edward Coke. The notion of sovereignty based on vernacular law was used in various countries as an ideological weapon against any threat of domination: in the Spanish Flanders, in the France of the Valois kings, in Stuart Scotland and England. Thus, from a historiographical perspective, one may see a turning point in the constitution of the legal apparatus of independent states in the modern age, or on the contrary, see a continuity with the late Middle Ages: in this case, the doctrinal efflorescence in the 16th and 17th c. can be viewed as the legacy of 13th and 14th c. struggles to emancipate citizens and worshippers from papal authority, illustrated by the quarrel between secular princes and the Papacy and the rising attraction of gallicanism and anglicanism. 

And yet, it soon became clear that the tyrant lurked behind the sovereign: « Other do call that kinde of administration which the Greekes do call, pambasileian, not tyranny, but the absolute power of a King, which they would pretende that everie King hath, if he would use it. The other they call basileian nomikhn or the Royall power regulate by laws », Sir Thomas Smith, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I declared in De Republic Anglorum in 1583. One of the main issues raised by the establishment of centralized territorial monarchies was the possibility of controlling that power, as soon as there was a risk that it be used to force subjects to convert themselves to the monarch’s religion. How could a clear line be drawn between what Bodin calls a legitimate and just form of action and tyrannical will? Once the principle of obedience to civil authority is accepted, how to be sure that the subject does not again fall prey to the power of medieval lords or become the slave of some insane ruler? What are the effects of political serfdom for society as a whole? In the 16th c., the transmission of the royal Crown to English and Scottish princesses also raised new questions as to the incarnation of power in a female body: how could a woman represent the body of the people and exercise authority on their behalf? Later on, how did the figure of the enlightened despot emerge in Europe?

The monarchomachs gave paramount importance to the idea of imposing normative limits on the ruler and promoted the right to resist when the prince or princess failed to respect liberty of conscience or the fundamental laws of the realm. But the partisans of state sovereignty also took up as their own this notion of limitation, whether they viewed sovereignty as a historical construct (Bodin), or whether they adopted a contractualist perspective (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), or else an institutionalist perspective (Harrington, Spinoza, Montesquieu). 

The development of the doctrine of sovereignty in Early Modern Europe seems to have generated a tension between the necessity of setting limits to the sovereign power and the difficulty to derive these limitations from civil law. Such a tension is expressed in Loyseau’s maxim: “Sans doute la souveraineté est-elle absolue, mais elle a des limites.” Hence the attempt to find the limit to sovereign power elsewhere, either in the treatises on the art of government (Machiavelli, Botero, Ammirato…) or in the theory of natural law and of the right to resist, contending that the ruler’s actions shall be measured by following the universal law of reason. 
What does the modern tyrant look like? The terms of tyrant (tyrannos) and despot (despotes) were bequeathed by Ancient Greek and Roman historical and political thought, first to describe the Memnad dynasty, then to oppose the good king (basileus) and the bad king, whose government is characterized by excess (hubris). The term despotes was used for a divinity or a master who had authority over a group of men: from the 11th c. A.D., it was the title commonly used for the Byzantine Emperor. In the 13th c. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between the tyrant and the usurper. While subjects may rebel against the latter, they had no right to rebel against the former, who was legitimate and immune. Both terms have undergone change in their meaning and came to assume in the Renaissance, then in modern times, the pejorative sense given to them by Montesquieu. In his eyes, the main difference between a good and a despotic government did not lie in the ruler’s identity or in the nature of the regime – democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, but in the way the sovereign exercised power. In one case, this power would be checked by the laws of the State or Principality, in the other, the sovereign’s will – however altered and erratic – would know no limit and serve as law.

Modern minds have invested with modern features the figure of the bad prince, as the ethical and religious qualities which were previously expected from a ruler – is he pious, wise or just? – tended to give way to prudential considerations, like his ability to preserve religious concord or public prosperity, thus conferring on the notion of common good a more immediate dimension than the one which prevailed in scholastic thinking. The tyranny exerted on individuals could bear the mask of religious persecution or aristocratic domination. As patriarchal power served as an analogue for sovereign power (Filmer), the attempt to contain the latter sometimes went hand in hand with the critique of sex relations based on domination (Marinella, Tarabotti). 

A typical tragic hero, the tyrant has been the object of innumerable works and depictions (songs, allegories, satirical images…) which serve as a counterpoint to official portraits of sovereigns in full state. In Shakespeare’s historical works he appears as a prince or a usurper caught in the trap of an endless mirror effect: « As Caesar loved me, I weep for him ; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it ; as he was valiant, I honour him : but as he was ambitious, I slew him », Brutus declares. He is finally at the heart of monarchomach treatises whether Catholic (Mariana, Boucher) or Protestant (Buchanan, Languet, Bèze) and whose successors are Milton and Sidney. He is represented as a senile old man, a woman ensnared in her passions or a lunatic blinded by his will to rule. In their most radical recommendations, these thinkers call for tyrannicide. 

Our aim will be to delve into a great variety of sources and testimonies in an effort to show how they reveal the changes in the figure of the Sovereign in the modern age. These changes will be analysed both in terms of broad developments and in their unresolved tensions, between the institution of a supreme authority grounded in popular legitimacy and capable of taking decisions binding the whole society and the creation of constitutional counterpoises to prevent the metamorphosis of sovereigns into tyrants. The field of studies will be European, and potentially cosmopolitical insofar as modern Western observers have established the figure of the Eastern despot as a counter model: it would therefore be of major importance to confront this vision with the representations of Persian, Chinese or Arabic speaking thinkers.


Friday, January

22. Room B015 - Salle René Rémond, Espace Recherche, building B


9h15 Welcoming the participants.

9h30 Conference opening

9h45-11h00 The Prince and the Tyrant in Reformation Europe I

  • Chair Christian LAZZERI (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)
  • Armel DUBOIS-NAYT (Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin) – Marie de Guise: femme prince ou “tyranne”?
  • Teresa MALINOWSKI (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) – L’expérience polonaise d’Henri III dans les écrits de la Ligue : un réquisitoire contre le Valois tyran.


11h15-12h30 The Prince and the Tyrant in Reformation Europe II

  • Chair Mark GREENGRASS (University of Sheffield)
  • Mario TURCHETTI (Université de Fribourg) – La différence « capitale » entre despotisme et tyrannie : la leçon de Bodin indispensable encore de nos jours
  • Nicolas DUBOS (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) – Portrait du Prince et histoire nationale dans le Henry VII de Francis Bacon

Déjeuner. Lunch


14h00-15h45 Representing the Tyrant in Early Stuart England

Chair Anne-Marie MILLER BLAISE (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3)

  • Christine SUKIC (Université de Reims Champagne Ardenne) – “We have made a God of our owne bloud”: Alexander the Great as Hero and Tyrant on the Early Modern Stage
  • Gilles BERTHEAU (Université François Rabelais, Tours) – King James and “Pontificall Tyrannie”
  • Jauffrey BERTHIER (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) – Common law et absolutisme dans l’Angleterre du début du XVIIe siècle. Le droit comme limite prudentielle du pouvoir


16h00-17h45 Deconstructing and rethinking tyranny

Chair Myriam-Isabelle DUCROCQ (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)

  • Raffaella SANTI (Università di Urbino Carlo Bo) – Unus Tyrannus? The Dissolution of Tyranny in Hobbes’s Leviathans
  • Mary NYQUIST (University of Toronto) – Despotism No Tyranny in Hobbes
  • Luc BOROT (Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 3) – Tyrannies as privation(s) of government in Harrington’s System of Politics.

Saturday, January 23.

Room : Salle des conférences, Espace Recherche, Building B


9h15 Welcoming the participants.

9h30-10h45 Portrait of the Tyrant as the enemy of liberty

  • Chair Laïla GHERMANI (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)
  • Christopher HAMEL (Université de Rouen) – "’A single person...natural adversarie and oppressor of libertie’. La réduction de la monarchie à la tyrannie dans les pamphlets politiques de John Milton"
  • Claire GHERRAERT-GRAFFEUILLE (Université de Rouen) - Formes et figures de la tyrannie dans The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson de Lucy Hutchinson (c. 1670)


11h00-12h15 The birth of the modern Prince: France, England, the Low Countries

Chair Luc BOROT (Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3)

  • Martin DZELZAINIS (University of Leicester) – ‘Hostis humani generis from Milton to Locke
  • Blandine KRIEGEL (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) – Le Prince moderne, de la souveraineté absolue à la séparation des pouvoirs : Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza



14h00-15h15 Reflections of the Tyrant in Enlightenment Europe

  • Monique COTTRET (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) - Damiens et l’image de Louis XV, les faux-semblants du tyrannicide au tournant des Lumières
  • Alexandra SIPPEL (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès) – “Queen Tudorina of Bonhommica: ideal monarchy v. Hanoverian decadence in The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman (1778)”


15h30-17h15 Banishing the Tyrant: the time of revolution

  • Carine LOUNISSI (Université de Rouen) – “A sovereignty to will and a sovereignty to act": du despote au souverain chez Thomas Paine
  • Suzanne LEVIN (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) – From King Log to Despot: The Turning Point of Varennes in the Republican Press
  • Felix MANGANO (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) - Tyrannicide et politique linguistique.

17h45 Conference closing remarks

Organising committee

  • Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - CREA)
  • Laïla Ghermani (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - CREA)
  • Anne-Marie Miller Blaise (Université La Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 – PRISMES)
  • Alexandra Sippel (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès – CAS)

Scientific committee

  • Marc Belissa (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - CHISCO)
  • Jauffrey Berthier (Université Bordeaux Montaigne - SPH)
  • Luc Borot (Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3- IRCL UMR 5186)
  • Nicolas Dubos (Université Bordeaux Montaigne - SPH)
  • Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - CREA)
  • Blandine Kriegel (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)
  • Laïla Ghermani (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - CREA)
  • Christian Lazzeri (Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense - SOPHIAPOL)
  • Franck Lessay (Université La Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3)
  • Rachel Rogers (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès - CAS)
  • Miri Rubin (Queen Mary University London)
  • Raffaella Santi (Universita di Urbino, Carlo Bo)


  • Bâtiment B, Espace Recherche - 200 avenue de la République
    Nanterre, France (92)


  • Friday, January 22, 2016
  • Saturday, January 23, 2016


  • prince, tyran, despote, souveraineté, état de droit, république


  • Laïla Ghermani
    courriel : lghermani [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq
    courriel : mducrocq [at] u-paris10 [dot] fr

Information source

  • Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq
    courriel : mducrocq [at] u-paris10 [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« The Prince, the Tyrant, the Despot: figures of the Sovereign in Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment », Conference, symposium, Calenda, Published on Friday, December 18, 2015, https://doi.org/10.58079/u2j

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