Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c. 1410–1800, edited by Tracey A. Sowerby, Jan Hennings 2017

In: Diplomatica

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London and New York: Routledge. Pp. xiii + 306. £110 Hardback. isbn 9781138650633.

With Practices of Diplomacy, Tracey Sowerby and Jan Hennings have put together a remarkable volume which coherently reconsiders the theme of early modern diplomacy through the lens of diplomatic practices. The volume inserts itself in the so-called New Diplomatic History by focusing on socio-cultural practices whose role was crucial in defining the way “diplomacy” (as a “makeshift expedient for want of a clear definition,” p. 2) concretely worked in the early modern world, that is in contexts neither fully captured nor explained by the modern implications of the term itself. The attention given to socio-cultural practices, however, does not imply that the authors privilege the cultural or symbolic over real-world outcomes, as the editors clearly state in their Introduction, but on the contrary, it emphasizes that the whole world of practices of diplomacy belongs to both these realms. Moreover, the authors rightly insist on continuities and adaptations rather than breaks and turning points and consequently adopt a long chronology that encompasses also part of the later Middle Ages. The volume finally expands on a broad geography in which Europe was less dominant in its relationships with non-European powers than previously believed: such relationships need therefore to be reformulated according to new concepts. In order to do so, when analysing the contacts between different cultural systems, the volume shows the concrete workings of interesting concepts such as familiarity and commensurability.

Even excellent collective works can sometimes remain anthologies of individually brilliant contributions: this volume is more than that. The authors manage to go beyond their individual topics, by relating to each other and successfully integrating the general lines of the collective enquiry. Finally, the case studies – in a well-balanced mix of classical and less known cases – are a true antidote to simplification and easy models.

The structure of the book is tripartite: three sections, which contain thirteen essays, are framed by an introduction by the two editors and by an afterword by Christian Windler that are at the same time impeccably clear, and methodologically innovative. Windler’s afterword, in particular, offers the reader a theoretically relevant contribution to the analysis of the field and its future possibilities: the history of diplomacy is starting to break away from what Alain Wijffels (2011) defined as the circular reasoning around the culturally biased notion of modernity in many interesting ways.

The first section (‘Status and sovereignty beyond the state’) is focused on who and what could claim diplomatic agency and status: the four chapters focus on the distinctive nature of diplomatic agency of duchesses and regional lords in the domains of the dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century (Duncan Hardy); the relations between the tributary Christian princes of Transylvania and the Ottoman rulers in early seventeenth-century Buda (Gábor Kármán); Ragusan poetic and literary image of the diplomatically central and peaceful role of the city-republic in the dangerous Adriatic space between the Ottomans, the Habsburg and Venice (Lovro Kunčević); and the complex problem of status in the preparations of the Westphalia treaties between the secular and religious personal identities of the envoys and the representation of their princes and lords (Niels May). Such a group of essays provides a wide exploration of the various meanings of diplomatic agency and the many ways of expressing it by focusing not only on sovereignty but also on the notion of status.

The second section (‘Familiarity, entertainment, and the roles of diplomatic actors’) shifts from political structures to individual actors and the social and cultural contexts of diplomacy. Giulia Galastro describes the analysis of non-verbal communication thanks to the use of sumptuous textiles as hospitality markers in diplomatic welcomes in seventeenth-century Genoa, and Katharina Piecocki re-reads diplomatic relationships in opera librettos in Rome by adapting Tim Hampton’s notion of “diplomatic poetics” to the opera. Florian Kühnel analyses the somehow unconventional treatise by Friedrich Karl von Moser on The rights and duties of the female envoy (1752) on the role of the wives of the ambassadors, and the lives and deeds of Elizabeth Trumbull and Mary Wortley Montagu as ambassadresses, while Guido van Meersbergen explores the diplomatic agency of the Dutch merchant-diplomat Dircq van Andrichem (1629–1665) sent to the Mughal court on behalf of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (voc). Lastly, David Do Paço investigates the trans-imperial familiarity displayed by the Ottoman ambassadors in eighteenth-century Vienna. Therefore, the second section of the volume explores a broad array of ‘unconventional’ (i.e. less investigated), languages, actors and ways of diplomacy.

The third section (‘Objects and beasts’) finally focuses on the role of material culture – both as precious objects and noble beasts – in fostering, allowing or sometimes counteracting diplomatic negotiation. Felicity Heal recapitulates the role of animal-giving in Tudor and Stuart England and Germán Gamero Igea explores the careful use of gifts by the two consort rulers Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain in defining their respective role as king and queen both within their composite domains and outside them. Frank Birkenholz, in turns, takes the reader back to the parallel ‘royal’ agency of the voc merchants with the Safavids Sultans and the Mughal sovereigns in a hybrid diplomacy that reminds the diplomatic agency of medieval merchants in the Mediterranean. Finally, Jan Henning investigates the interaction between unusual gifts such as hemp and tin and their purpose and significance in the economic negotiations between England and Russia in the years 1662–4.

Such a rich collection of essays maintains its promises and offers to the reader a coherent vision of what the authors mean by “practices of diplomacy,” without pretending to answer every possible question or to cover every side of this complex subject. Sometimes the urge of defining new strands of practice by encapsulating them in newly found etiquettes or elaborate phraseology not only reveal the objective difficulty of dealing with such a spectrum of practices within the traditional language of politics and power, but also let surface some artificiality or unnecessary esprit de système. Moreover, maybe a longer view back in time could help in interpreting some of these phenomena – such as, for instance, the diplomatic agency of merchants in pioneer interactions between different cultures.

That said, this is an excellent collective effort at providing those who are interested not only in early modern diplomacy, but more generally in power, politics and culture in the premodern age, with an innovative, incisive, and coherent investigation of “practices of diplomacy.” The quality of the texts and the choice of the case-studies add to the intellectual stimuli of the volume, quite apart from the fact that it is also a beautiful book.

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