Researching Early Modern History

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Ambassadors in the public eye. RBE 23, TD Jacobs

Last week, I attended the conference “Addressing the Public Abroad: Strategies of Cultural and Public Diplomacy in the Early Modern Habsburg World (1550-1750)” which took place across two days at the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts. I presented a paper on “The Public Embassy of Alonso de Cárdenas” which in no way reflected the abstract in the program since I did not have the faintest idea as to what I was doing when I wrote it. No matter. I’m happy with how it turned out.

Of more interest were the other presenters. There was a wide variety of topics covered, but there were some definite highlights in my opinion. Ashleigh Dean presented a paper on the first Spanish embassy to China, and it turns out that the Spanish were a great deal more interested in establishing diplomatic ties than the Chinese, who brushed them off with a made-up bit of bureaucracy. Credentialing, it seems, did not work the same way at all in China – their uncontested position of dominance meant that it did not really matter in the least what petty little king-let you claimed to represent.

Veronika Hyden-Hanscho presented a paper on the dissemination of French fashion via diplomacy. This is a topic I’m particularly interested (I like clothing as a medium for messaging) but which I just don’t have enough information on the subject in my own source materials to do a great deal with. However, following the ascendancy of French styles and the increase in portraiture from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, it turns out you can figure out what diplomats wore. And who resisted changes to standard dress. The Austrian court was not, it turns out, keen embrace the new styles – at least not in public.

Rocío Martínez López’s paper on Maria Antonia of Austria was fascinating and tied in with my own research on the importance of titling, whether official or otherwise, and how status is signaled and claimed. She also enlightened me with regard to an episode in history of which I am vastly ignorant. The way that Charles II of Spain is often presented makes him appear entirely passive with regard to his choice of successor – not so.

I suppose, however, that the value of conferences is largely in the talk that takes place between talks. During the question and answers, Helmer Helmers made it clear that I should be careful not to merely say someone did something ‘for profit’ – as that does not really explain anything. Quite a just critique. Over coffee, Dorothea Nolde cleared up a complete mystery regarding my French ambassadorial correspondence. And over dinner, Enrique Corredera Nilsson forced me to consider the role of distance in relation to the network of ambassadors. When it takes three months to send a letter, and a further three to obtain a response, then micro-managing an embassy is simply not a realistic prospect. Something that he then confirmed during his presentation on Bernardino de Rebolledo’s defence of Catholicism in Denmark. It is reassuring to know – after a fashion – that if I do not find something in my correspondence with the Consejo de Estado, that does not mean that it did not happen. It may simply mean that the ambassador did not report it to them directly.

Many thanks are owed to Klaas Van Gelder for the organization of a conference that I (and my students) will reap the benefits of for many years to come.


Addressing the Public Abroad

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