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.

How is the Emir of Cordoba like the Queen of Sheba?

When in 865 Emir Muhammad I of Cordoba (r. 852-886) sent back the Frankish envoys he had received from Charles the Bald (r. 843-877) the previous year, he entrusted them with a number of gifts, which they conveyed to Charles at his capital at Compiegne. According to Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, writing in the Annals of St-Bertin, these included ‘fine cloth of various kinds’, ‘many perfumes’ and ‘camels carrying couches and canopies’.

To say that I have been interested in these camels is perhaps to slightly underplay it [No kidding – Ed.].

Your long-suffering editor experiencing your correspondent’s camel fixation once more

Unwary scholars in half a dozen countries and two continents have had the experience of listening to me talking about these camels. What was meant to be a paragraph in my PhD thesis rapidly escalated into an article, (‘The Camels of Charles the Bald’, Medieval Encounters, 25 (2019), 263-292), and I acquired a healthy quantity of camel-related memorabilia along the way.

Part of what fascinated me about these camels was trying to work out what Charles would have made of them. Camels were decidedly thin on the ground in ninth-century Francia and although some of his courtiers may have encountered them on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Charles himself had no personal experience with them. Being somewhat pungent and prone to spitting, a close encounter with a camel can be an ambiguous experience for the inexperienced. It is not obvious whether getting a camel as a present is a good or a bad thing.

In order to understand Charles’ response to these camels, I tried to reconstruct the intellectual context by which he would have understood them. Even in the modern world, the way we think about animals is shaped by the culturally-induced associations we have with them. Thus, for instance, a white-headed fish eagle has become synonymous with the United States; and a black-and-white bear with a digestive system that is poorly adapted for its diet has ended up as the symbol of wildlife conservation. This is particularly the case when it comes to diplomatic gifts, which come imbued with meaning (some readers may remember the uproar when in 2009 the newly elected American President Barack Obama presented Prime Minister Gordon Brown with 25 DVDs, a gift widely viewed by the British press as a snub).

Here we can see Joseph being sold by his brothers to a Midianite merchant, complete with camel. Illustration from the Stuttgart Psalter, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Bibl. fol. 23.119r (source).

The range of potential meanings the camels could have had for Charles is large and I discuss them in my article. He and his advisers had access to a huge range of classical and biblical sources of knowledge that refer to camels, and I want to illustrate this point by using this blogpost to talk about one of my favourite readings of the camel, which comes from the Old Testament. Saying that the Bible was important in the medieval world is not exactly a hot take. In addition to its religious significance, Carolingian rulers read the historical books of the Old Testament both as a record of the past and as an example of what it meant to be a king. They drew moral and practical lessons from what they read. Knowledge of scripture was something they shared with both religious and lay elites, meaning that the ideas and stories that a king like Charles encountered in the Bible were familiar to many of the powerful people whose support and participation gave his kingdom its substance.

Charles the Bald’s favourite Biblical king was Solomon, prompting Hincmar to write at length on the monarch in response to Charles’ questions about him. Charles was repeatedly described by his courtiers as ‘our Solomon’ and he seems to have actively encouraged this identification. Famously wise, powerful and successful at bringing about peace, Solomon was a popular model for medieval kings to aspire to. Solomon had additional advantages for Charles, being famous for culture and learning, something that Charles was interested in, while not being famous as a warrior-king. Charles’ military career was decidedly chequered, so Solomon provided a useful archetype for a peaceful king. Charlemagne had been compared to David, so by becoming the new Solomon, Charles could portray himself as the heir to his revered grandfather’s glory.

Camels feature heavily in various contexts in the Old Testament, but one of the most spectacular moments comes when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon. Both 1 Kings 10:2 and 2 Chronicles 9:1 describe the Queen coming ‘with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones’. The land of Sheba itself was also associated with camels because of the words of the Prophet Isaiah [60:6]:

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord. 

Carolingian intellectuals commented on these camels from Sheba, identifying Sheba as the land of the Queen who visited Solomon. The camels represented the gentile souls coming to God, barbarian peoples brought to the light. More prosaically, the camels of Sheba represented a righteous king being recognised for his wisdom by distant and fantastically wealthy foreign rulers, demonstrating his importance and authority.

There were other ways that Charles could and probably did read his new zoological presents. But given his interest in Solomon and that his teachers and advisors associated camels with Sheba, it’s hard to imagine that the comparison didn’t cross his mind. It would also have been fantastically useful as yet another way of convincing his followers that they were participating in something special, and that their king was indeed a good one, who was guided by the wisdom of Solomon.

Connections like these are why I’m so interested in the role played by animals in medieval diplomacy (see also my ramblings on Charlemagne’s elephants). They bring out the importance of spectacle at court, as well as the significance of sources of knowledge of distant lands. For Emir Muhammad, the camels he sent had a completely different cultural significance and meaning. Yet despite the fact that he and Charles had minimal common ground in their comprehension of the camels, they could both understand their giving and receiving as a sign of good will and amity. Although we are allowed to suspect that it would probably have been for the best if Muhammad never found out that Charles had cast him as the Queen of Sheba in this spectacle.