Sarah Mortimer - Associate Professor of Early Modern History

Associate Professor Sarah Mortimer is an early modern historian, especially interested in the relationship between political thought and religious ideas.  Her focus is on a period when new ideas about salvation, about political life and about what it means to be human began to be expressed; after Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus the intellectual, political and religious landscape looked very different.  Associate Professor Mortimer's research looks at how people sought to understand, explain, and shape their world in this fascinating and complex periodFaculty webpage:

I have just completed a book on the history of political thought 1517-1625, entitled Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State (Oxford, 2021).[1]  I show that this period was crucial for the development of political thought – in a time of expanding empires, religious upheaval, and social change, new ideas about the organisation and purpose of human communities began to be debated. In particular, there was a concern to understand the political or civil community as bounded, limited in geographical terms and with its own particular structures, characteristics and history. There was also a growing focus, in the wake of the Reformation, on civil or political authority as distinct from the church or religious authority. The concept of sovereignty began to be used, alongside a new language of reason of state—in response, political theories based upon religion gained traction, especially arguments for the divine right of kings.  More broadly, the language of natural law became increasingly important as a means of legitimising political power, opening up scope for religious toleration.

My book draws on a wide range of sources from Europe and beyond; in it I make connections between Christian Europe and the Muslim societies that lay to its south and east.  One of the most interesting questions as I researched it was the extent to which concerns about the legitimacy of political power were shared by people of different faiths.  For me, one of the joys of intellectual history is the way it challenges us to cross geographical and religious boundaries.

I have also written a number of articles which explore themes of ethics, politics, and religion in the early modern period, often reconsidering canonical figures like Thomas Hobbes and Hugo Grotius in the light of their religious and political context.  Currently, I am writing on John Locke’s view of ‘religion’, and its roots in debates of the earlier seventeenth century.  Recently I have also analysed the Reformation debate on ‘Counsels of Perfection’ – praiseworthy actions which are not obligatory, showing why Luther was so opposed to them and what that meant for political thought.  Building on this, I am starting a new study on ‘Virtue beyond Law’ which will look at early modern ideas about moral and religious actions which lie beyond the sphere of human law.