The New Diplomatic History and the Middle Ages

Writing Diplomatically

People have been writing the history of diplomacy for as long as they’ve been writing history. The terse Spring and Autumn annals of the Chinese state of Lu find space for embassies in their brief account of the passing of the years. Many of the most memorable set-pieces in Greek historical writing centre on diplomatic encounters, whether it is the Persian envoys demanding earth and water from the Greek states in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.48) or the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in Thucydides (Thuc. 5.84). In the European tradition, the heyday of the writing of diplomatic history probably came in the nineteenth century. In this we can partly see the influence of Ranke on the practice of history. His dependence upon the Venetian archives, and the reports from ambassadors that they held, shaped his perspective of the past. Ranke’s theory of the Primat der Außenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy, in which the domestic politics of a state was subordinated to the needs of its foreign relations in order to ensure its survival, also privileged diplomatic history.

In addition to the role played by Ranke, this sort of history was perceived to be useful to the state, with analysis of foreign policy offering useful lessons for the statesmen of their age and training for their successors in the future. The result was a diplomatic history that focussed on relations between European states. While some attention was paid to monarchs or to idealised ministers whose genius was to be outlined for the edification of the nation, it was a largely depersonalised history, in which countries or capital cities made decisions on the basis of a rational understanding of their material interests.

This approach is not particularly useful for writing the history of medieval diplomacy. Unlike the classical world, which can be made to fit into such a model provided you’re willing to abuse Thucydides enough (he suffers what he must), the medieval past resists the imposition of straightforward ideas of the state and rational diplomacy (as extended arguments about whether we can even talk about the medieval state demonstrate). Instead, to these observers, medieval Europe resembled a complicated mess of entities and individuals doing things that failed to conform to the sort of sound diplomatic principles that makes sense to nineteenth-century statesmen/twentieth-century military academies.

This has a number of consequences. For a start, it means that mainstream diplomatic history doesn’t normally discuss the medieval period. In the second half of the twentieth century, the study of the history of premodern diplomacy in the English-speaking world was dominated by Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) and Donald Queller’s The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages (1967). They argued that diplomacy as we understand it developed in Italy in the fifteenth century, with the rise of permanent ambassadors. While this depends on a very particular definition of diplomacy that most medieval historians would reject, it remains alarmingly popular among modern historians. Also important in the narrative of the rise of ‘proper’ diplomacy was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at which point the system of modern states which traditional diplomatic history was based on was deemed to have fully arrived. It also means that medieval historians who do study diplomacy tend to do so without reference to the ideas and methods developed by their modernist colleagues, or by people working in the wider field of International Relations.

As someone who has been thinking about medieval diplomacy for a decade, this conceptual distance has long frustrated me. This is why I’ve become increasingly interested in a new development in the study of diplomacy, the descriptively named New Diplomatic History. As with many historiographical movements, identifying its precise genesis is a murky and perhaps unhelpful business. An important moment of crystallisation took place with a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2008 entitled ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History’. In his introduction to the issue, the editor of the issue, John Watkins, called for this New Diplomatic History, and his description of it is one of the canonical texts of the movement. By 2011 a network for the New Diplomatic History was established, based in Leiden. That perhaps overstates its institutionalisation as a school, and there is a much wider range of scholars who cite the New Diplomatic History without being fully attached to the Leiden circle. 

Watkins identified the beginning of the New Diplomatic History in Italian universities in the 1990s, with works such as Daniela Frigo’s Principe, Ambasciatori e “Jus Gentium”: L’amministrazione della Politica Estera nel Piemonte del Settecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). Given the focus of earlier diplomatic history on the Venetian archives for their source base, and on Italy as the birthplace of modern diplomacy, Italy loomed large in the old diplomatic history. The work of Frigo and her later collaborators served to explode many of these myths, as they argued that early modern Italian diplomacy was driven by personalities rather than offices, and that those institutions that did exist were evolutions from medieval precedent.

Feeding into the development of the New Diplomatic History in the 1990s and 2000s were changes in the field of International Relations. One of these was the increasing challenge to old ideas about Westphalia, which came to a head in 1998 at the 350th anniversary of the Peace. If 1648 did not inaugurate a system of state sovereignty, then new approaches to diplomacy both before and after it were going to be required. Likewise these decades saw growing interest in non-state actors. The diplomatic importance of international bodies such as the European Union, terrorist organisations such as FARC, or major companies such as Amazon, encouraged scholars in International Relations to move away from a focus on diplomacy as a thing that happened between states.

Don’t you hate it when you show up at a peace treaty and realise someone is wearing the same outfit as you? The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648.

So, what is the New Diplomatic History?

In many ways the New Diplomatic History represents a deliberate repudiation of older diplomatic models. For a start, it rejects the state as the chief actor in diplomacy. One of the ways that manifests is by being ‘actor-centred’. Diplomacy is conducted by individuals, rather than faceless metonyms. Decisions made within governments or institutions are ultimately made by people, with their own personalities, experiences and agendas, operating within a particular political and cultural context.  Daniela Frigo’s work pointed to the importance of individuals in ways that often overrode the technical roles of the offices they held. In this way we can move away from bland and misleading statements that Germany did this, or London decided that. This ‘actor-centred’ diplomacy has also led to a new emphasis on ambassadors, their personalities, skills and motivations. Rather than being a method of delivering a letter, they become key parts of the process by which diplomacy took place.

This focus on people has gone hand-in-hand with a greater attention to the practicalities of diplomacy. How diplomats got from place to place, how they were received by and communicated with their hosts and how they remained in touch with their employers back home. This emphasis on practicality can also shift focus away from diplomats themselves, to their families, retinues and support staffs, as well as to the spies and informants who provided information, and the allies and friends who offered help or sought to use the ambassadors for their own purposes. This expands the scope of diplomatic history, embedding it in the context in which it happened and helping us understand the practicalities involved. But it also allows us to think about how people who weren’t elite men such as commoners, women and children were involved in diplomacy.

Another way this rejection of the modern European state as the primary actor in diplomacy emerges is in a greater emphasis on non-European diplomacy. By taking the politics and institutions of non-European powers seriously and on their own terms, the scope for diplomatic history has expanded considerably. Work on the Ottoman empire has pointed to the importance of community leaders, such as the heads of Christian minority groups under the millet system, in communicating with the representatives of foreign powers. European empires such as Britain worked through agents such as consuls, successful merchants based in places like Smyrna and Alexandria who combined their commercial activities and prominence among the local foreign community with diplomatic missions.

One of the important things about people like consuls and missionaries is that although they might deal with governments on behalf of a foreign polity, they also frequently did so for their own purposes, or as representatives of non-state actors such as religious groups, ethnic minorities or commercial interests. Such groups frequently wielded considerable power, and here we might want to think about the Hanseatic League negotiating with English and Russian monarchs, or the Jesuit order in the Rio Grande de Sol region bargaining with Spanish and Portuguese kings and the leaders of groups such as the Tupi. Moving away from the state allows us to see the other actors in diplomatic history, who represented groups and blocs who mattered, even if they fit untidily in more traditional historiography.

If philosophically, the New Diplomatic History is based on rejecting the model of modern European states interacting with each other, methodologically it seeks to break out of the box that traditional diplomatic history frequently placed itself in. One of ways its practitioners seek to do so is by thinking about the connections between domestic politics and foreign relations. Rather than being a separate sphere, the two blurred and fed into each other. Specialists in diplomacy need to take internal politics seriously in order to understand the motivations and restraints in which these relations were conducted.

The New Diplomatic History also embraces greater interdisciplinarity in the study of diplomacy. This point appears in the opening line of John Watkins’ call for a New Diplomatic History. Watkins’ own preferred focus is with literary studies, thinking about the impact of diplomatic careers on writers such as Petrarch, Chaucer and Montaigne, or examining the importance of literary culture in shaping diplomatic correspondence and spaces such as salons. Embracing cultural and social history more broadly has allowed other scholars to think about how diplomats participated in the lives of the spaces that hosted them, while also considering the ideas and mentalities they bore and the environments that shaped them. Likewise, scholars thinking about gender and race have offered provocative new ideas about the role of their fields in thinking about diplomacy. Of especial interest has been the role of women in acting as go-betweens, setting cultural norms and fostering environments where informal diplomacy could take place. New research on material culture has been particularly important. Diplomatic gifts have acquired a fresh importance with greater attention paid to their meaning and provenance. But the material turn has gone much further than that, paying attention to clothes worn by diplomats, their purchases and the means with which they lived their lives and the significance this had for their work.

The New Diplomatic Middle Ages?

This is all very well, but what does it actually do for us as medievalists? After all, you’ll have noticed that most of the examples I’ve used to illustrate points thus far have been early modern. This reflects the state of the field. Where medieval scholars have been involved, it has generally been specialists in the very late period. Medievalists also face unusual challenges that complicate some of the mainstays of the New Diplomatic History. Most obviously our source base is usually much, much thinner. There are also dangers involved in a naïve use of the New Diplomatic History. While much of that scholarship aims to break free of traditional models of diplomacy by looking at non-European powers, the fact remains that the Ottomans, Comanche and their like existed within the modern world, with implications for their technology and communications that shaped their diplomacy. The people and places we are interested in are distant to us in time, adding a layer of complexity. In drawing too direct a connection between medieval and non-European modern diplomacy we risk diminishing both, reducing them to a caricature of generic primitiveness and missing what is distinctive about them.

Nonetheless, I think the New Diplomatic History offers a great deal for the study of the medieval past. This is in part because their vision of what diplomacy is fits the realities of the medieval world much more closely than older interpretations. A political landscape where states were frequently weak or non-existent and where power depended greatly on individual actors, with limited separation between public and private is one that the New Diplomatic History is much better able to navigate than previous models. Ideas about the role played by non-state actors, or by diplomats who don’t look like permanent, professional ambassadors can be usefully applied to the medieval world. On a grander scale, being able to step away from a Westphalian model of sovereign states aggressively competing with each other offers alternative ways for thinking about how medieval entities related to each other, such as hegemony or collaborative world orders.  The value the New Diplomatic History places on interdisciplinarity also offers a chance to widen the source base medieval historians work with, encouraging us for example to think about the wider cultural horizons in which medieval diplomacy took place.

The New Diplomatic History can be particularly useful for providing medieval historians with a context and terminology for what we already do. As I may have mentioned, in 2019 I published an article on the camels that Charles the Bald received from the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I in 865. Writing that piece a couple of years earlier was a strange and slightly isolating experience, as I buried myself both in the logistics of sourcing and transporting the camels and in the cultural meanings that both polities had concerning camels in order to understand their significance. My subsequent encounter with the New Diplomatic History was extremely helpful for comprehending what I had been doing by instinct.

Perhaps most striking for me is that modernists in the New Diplomatic History actually seem to want to talk to medievalists. John Watkins made his call for this new approach in a Journal for medieval as well as early modern historians. I think most medievalists know the experience of being hived off from the rest of the historical profession for being too weird. Having a bunch of modern scholars who are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say is useful as well as refreshing. In my time in Cambridge, I benefited from collaborating with modern diplomatic historians in informal sessions, teaching environments and lectures, acquiring ideas and perspectives that I have found provocative and helpful to my work. Any movement that makes it easier for us to have those conversations immediately has my sympathy.

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