out of order: misrule in the history of political thought

‘The Resolution of the Women of London to the Parliament’ (1642)

'Renard at the Lion's Court' (MS BN fr. 1581, end of the 13th century )

Summer volume of the Breviary of Renaud, Marguerite de Bar, Metz (Verdun, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 107, fol. 89r, c. 1302-1305 )

a scene from Aristophanes' The Birds

Birds hunting humans, servants commanding masters, women bossing men: the possibility of misrule has long been a serious political concern, particularly for those used to doing the ruling. Misrule was understood to be an inversion of the natural and just order, not only of politics but of the world at large, so much so that it was subject to routinization through celebrations such as Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, Shrove Tuesday, and Mardi Gras. 

A particular type of satire, tales of misrule tend to emerge at moments of political crisis. Not only do they criticize hypocrisy and vice - as in Pope’s Dunciad, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Voltaire’s Candide - but they actively imagine an alternative social order and the presumed horrors that would accompany it. In so far as these tales offer parodies of inversion, criticizing “the world turned upside down,” they necessarily comment upon what they understand to be the correct political and social structures, norms, and practices. In short, misrule reveals the criteria of good rule.

This project will examine accounts of misrule in the history of political thought, focusing on the ancient and early modern periods. Often conservative in outlook and written in defense of the status quo, some tales of misrule ask readers, nervously, if the imagined alternative really seems all that desirable. Others suggest that the status quo and the imaginary have more in common than one might think. If politics is, after Aristotle, the practice of alternately ruling and being ruled, then tales of misrule reveal the discomfort many experience in shifting between those two roles. ‘Out of Order’ will analyze the ways in which depictions of misrule capture views of both extant rule and concerns about proffered alternatives.