Melchor Cano and the conundrum of historical scholarship: Probability and criticism in the sixteenth century


  • Giuliano Mori University of Milan





This article discusses the role played by the rhetorical-judicial notion of verisimilitude in the sixteenth-century rise of historical criticism. Embracing a dialectical conception of historical facts as something that needed to be extremely probable rather than logically necessary, early modern authors became increasingly concerned with the development of critical tools of verification. Borrowed from the medieval judicial tradition—influenced in turn by classical rhetoric and dialectics—these tools aimed at assessing historical sources and accounts based on their inherent degree of verisimilitude. The judicial background of these tools of assessment explains the rise of historical criticism in environments that were influenced by the innovative legal and philological tradition of the mos gallicus (e.g., François Baudouin, Jean Bodin). Yet, at the same time, it also explains the emergence of similar critical notions among authors who independently integrated humanist, late scholastic, and canonistic interests. This was the case, for instance, with Melchor Cano (d. 1560), whose De locis theologicis predate both Baudoin’s and Bodin’s works, providing one of the earliest examples of a fully developed method of historical criticism.