November 13, 2023

The Royal Court In History

"The Court Society" by German sociologist Norbert Elias (1969).

The royal court in every nation and every era was both at the center of history and the creator of it. The rulers of the Roman Empire and other ancient powers had more in common with the royals and nobles of the Elizabethan Age than the latter do with us.

Before publishing houses and parliamentary democracy, before mass culture and general elections, there was only one institution that really mattered throughout the land: the royal court.

There was the throne, then the court, and then there was everything else. 

The authors of the Bible, like the author of the Shakespeare canon, and the authors of the Quran, were agents of the throne. The royal courts of these times and places had the political motive to influence the development of the religion, culture, political opinions and social mores of their realms. 

The masterful texts they created were all products of their times and cultures. And their production required a great deal of financial investment, special knowledge, leisure, grand motives, and political license. After all, it was no small feat to publish a big book in those days. Only the wealthy, connected few could afford to study, let alone actually gather their knowledge and compose culturally significant manuscripts.

And if the authorities deemed the content of certain literature to be objectionable to the state religion or political goals of the ruling regime then they would simply collect the limited number of copies and burn them. 

The earliest copy of the Quran in existence is far removed from the time of the mythical Muhammad, and that's because it did not appear in history as a fully formed piece of literature in the early 7th century. It was endlessly rewritten until a final copy was gathered together at the Abbasid court in Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. 

The publishing history of the Shakespeare canon is the exact opposite; much of it popped up out of the blue under a false persona in 1623.

As for the Gospels, the author Joseph Atwill has explained in his book, "Caesar's Messiah" how their construction were directly initiated from inside the Flavian court. The Roman emperors of the late 1st century understood the political value of propagating Roman-centric religious and historical literature. They had the means, motive, and, most importantly, the sacred scriptures taken from the destroyed Jewish sites that were necessary to create a new religion. 

Empires desire unity and harmony above all. Kings want happy subjects. So tolerating religious sects or ideas that are totally divorced from public life and society is out of the question. They have to be culturally discouraged, and politically stamped out, whether through religion or poetry. And we must remember that in the past poets had a tremendous influence in society because of their oratory power and perceived connection to the divine realm. All good and wise monarchs employed court poets. 


An excerpt from, "Introduction: Court Culture in the 1640s and 1650s" By Jerome de Groot and Peter Sillitoe, Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 15, August 2007:

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe the court was the most politically powerful and culturally significant institution in the country. The court was centre of government, diplomacy, patronage, political power, visual art and elite literary production throughout both centuries. Traditionally, then, studies of the court as an institution emphasised spectacle and hierarchy (Strong). Since the translation of Norbert Elias’ The Court Society in 1983 the court has become the focus for discussions of ritual, elite life, patronage, social and political organisation, power relations and state formation. The significance of the court to our understanding and analysis of Early Modern society has been reiterated over the last decades through a number of important books and articles; furthermore the cultural, social and political dynamics of the court have informed the research agenda in History, History of Art, Music and Literary Studies. The court as an entity has been debated and researched in great depth.

An excerpt from, "From Week 3: Norbert Elias, The Court Society" University of Oregon:

In his book The Court Society, the Swiss sociologist Norbert Elias took on the ambitious task of explaining both the rise of state power and the genesis of modern emotions. In particular, Elias wondered how it had been possible for European monarchs to 'domesticate' the nobles who were formally subject to their rule; Elias also wondered how it happened that Europeans acquired the ability to restrain their basic emotional impulses--to resist the urge to strike with deadly force when insulted, and so forth. Elias believed that these two transformations were closely related to one another and linked by the institution of the royal court. Accordingly his thesis had two elements:

The first element had to do with court as an instrument of social control. Elias noted that Europe experienced a long-term shift, beginning in the high Middle Ages and continuing through to eighteenth century, in the balance of power between nobility and monarchy to the advantage of the latter. For a variety of reasons, this process accelerated in the sixteenth century -- among the causes of this acceleration were bureaucratization of government and changes in military technique that required greater regimentation of field commanders and the soldiers they commanded. Taken together, these transformations diminished the autonomy and intensified the subordination of noble families that had previously a high degree of independence from any sort of central, controlling agency. Naturally, these transformations also provoked resistance. In France, the Fronde was the final death spasm of the independent French nobility; from then on French nobles were dependent on the King for income and prestige.

As the principle instrument for dispensing income and prestige, the royal court enabled kings to exercise power over their nobles. In France, especially, Louis XIV transformed his court into an instrument for exercising his power over the nobility. Pressure to attend the king at court was great; once at court, however, nobles faced the ruinous cost of conspicuous consumption; all this made them more and more dependent on the king’s favor.

An excerpt from, "Courts and households of the Habsburg dynasty: history and historiography" a chapter from the book, "A Constellation of Courts: The Courts and Households of Habsburg Europe, 1555–1665" Edited by René Vermeir, Dries Raeymaekers, and José Eloy Hortal Muñoz, Leuven University Press, 2014: 

The cultural movements, political doctrines and ideologies that emerged in Europe starting in the thirteenth century shared particular features and structures because they arose from a common court culture, and the courts of European monarchs achieved unquestionable political pre-eminence amongst the different forces that both characterised and shaped the social configurations found in the Ancien Régime1. However, this culture was gradually eroded during the nineteenth century, when the rise of the nation-state increasingly called the court’s political relevance into question. The bourgeois elites who gained power tried to legitimize this new political structure through the creation of anachronistic national histories, which posited that not only did the origins of individual nations lie in the remote past, but that they were more or less unchanged in the present. As a result, the image of the court became deformed in this ideologically motivated literature, turning into a grotesque caricature of itself: a setting for palace intrigues, sumptuous extravagance, immoral behaviour and the exercise of absolute power. 

The historiography did not begin to reprise this interpretation of the court and its role in history until a number of researchers working both inside and outside Europe began studying aspects of the early modern era through the lens of the court, rather than the nation-state. First came T he Court Society, the pioneering study of Norbert Elias, published in 1969. Then, in 1977, Arthur G. Dickens edited an ambitious volume whose novelty consisted in making a thorough comparative study in order to define the phenomenon of the court in space and time. The courts analysed were chosen “not simply because these courts typified these periods, but also in order to display the rich contrast of styles which could mark near-contemporaries”. The historiographical genre of ‘Court Studies’ was born, and one year later, Carlo Ossola concluded that understanding this institution was essential for understanding the early modern period.

After 1985, when Cesare Mozzarelli characterized the court as a political institution that had defined a large chunk of European history, ‘the court’ became an unavoidable topic in any research into early modern governance. A series of investigations were initiated that took the court as a starting point for analysing government relations and the informal organization of power, as well as the anthropological and the cultural aspects of court etiquette and ritual. The year 1994 marked the complete reversal of the nation-state distortion in the literature. In a publication that resulted from a conference on the origins of the modern state, Marcello Fantoni made it clear that the concept of court could not be anachronistically approached from the perspective of the nation state because it was an authoritative institution with its own unique characteristics. And its inclusion at such a symposium was, as Trevor Dean stated in the same volume, “the clearest demonstration of the long route undertaken by the Court Studies during the last twenty years.”

Another step was made in 1988 with the publication of a volume edited by Maurice Aymard and Marzio A. Romani that focused on the economic aspects of the court9. Until that point the court had been the object of numerous cultural studies, but now more general historical analyses were contending with the issue. As John Adamson has stated, the court’s significance was not limited to affairs of state, “almost invariably, it was the principal cultural and social centre of the realm. Indeed, Carlos Javier de Carlos Morales’ chapter in this volume demonstrates that the courts and households of the Spanish monarchy were also important economic institutions.

From the year 2000 onwards, a steady stream of scientific meetings, symposia and international conferences brought together an increasing number of specialists from different backgrounds. Currently, Court Studies attracts a great deal of interest, and there exist several centres dedicated to the subject in Europe and the United States, including Europa delle Corti (Italy), the Residenzen-Kommission of Göttingen (Germany), the Society for Court Studies (Great Britain), the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles (France) and the Instituto Universitario La Corte en Europa – IULCE (Spain), all of which are characterised by their interdisciplinary approach. 

An excerpt from, "Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires" By Jeroen Duindam, Brill, 2011:

At the heart of any royal court stands a ruler, more often male than female. The ruler is accompanied by close relatives, friends, and servants in various capacities. Other groups converge around this flexible and changing core institution. A comparison of courts necessarily starts with the household itself, omnipresent but highly variable. At all levels of society, households shape reproduction, socialization and interaction. In a large share of human history, political organization, too, arose primarily in the context of family and household. The hierarchical pre-eminence of a single family or clan, continuing its hold on power over generations, led to the development of dynasties. Common attributes of family life were magnified: households expanded, quarters—mobile or fixed—acquired more elaborate forms. Servants changed character if they not only served the head of their household, but also acted as administrators of his—and sometimes her—extended domains. Throughout history a range of phenomena related to dynastic households can be found. These include the household organization itself as well as its temporary or permanent abode. Household staffs reflect basic functions such as sleeping, eating, devotion, transport and hunting. Palace complexes, moreover, tend to have relatively secluded inner areas, and zones where a wider presence is allowed and expected. Hence, rules for access into the ruler’s immediate environment, or arrangements for the ruler’s movement outside of the core area, can be found at most courts. Dynastic reproduction and succession could be organized in many ways, and entailed a marked presence of women at court, even if their presence did not as a rule imply a share in formal responsibilities of government. Politico-religious highpoints in the calendar often came with pageantry arranging participants according to rank, demonstrating hierarchy and order. Even the artefacts chosen to highlight the supremacy of the ruler—thrones and daises; canopies, parasols, pendants, standards, and fans; headgear, jewellery, rings; drums and trumpets—show some resemblance across continents and centuries. Dynastic households, moreover, inevitably attracted visitors seeking hospitality, justice, prefer ment—or simply charmed by the spectacle. Representatives of regions and groups were drawn towards the symbolic and administrative centre, creating common elite identities while coalescing around the ruler.

The random examples offered here are a modest starting point only of a list that can be extended and refined ad libitum. Comparison of such forms and patterns can help us to understand functions of households—and hence of the dynastic power structures prevalent in pre-modern history. We need to ask ourselves, however, whether superficial similarities do not hide more profound differences. Labelling a magnificent building as a palace, or a person attending the ruler as a courtier, establishes categories of comparison that obscure cultural and social divergences. The term ‘courtier’ offers a case in point. It can be used as a generic term for all people at court—including menial servants as well as the ruler’s higher-ranking intimates; domestics as well as state servants. Often courtiers are viewed primarily in Castiglione’s literary per spective, as suave elite characters orbiting the court, forming as well as broadcasting its manners. These multiple associations of the term complicate understanding even in a strictly European context, with varying sources and contexts suggesting widely differing interpretations. Cultural translation entails even more problems. Archetypical court functions such as the chamberlain or the cupbearer can be found at many courts, but such functions could be performed by groups of very disparate status, provenance, training, and careers. Who would count as courtiers in the Ottoman Sultan’s palace or in the Qing Forbidden City? Members of the secluded inner courts— eunuchs, slave-pages, boon companions, princes—or state dignitaries who in these palaces as a rule entered only the outer court? Can we compare eunuchs in West and East Asia with high-ranking noble dignitaries in Europe performing similar tasks? To what extent did pages, trained at court in Europe as well as in Asia, play similar roles? Do we find parallels in Asia for the honorary courtiers so conspicuous in Europe, incidentally attending court, but not as a rule residing there? Such questions can be multiplied; they indicate the difficulties as well as the intellectual appeal of comparison reaching beyond the level of easy analogy.

An excerpt from, "Court Politics, Culture and Literature in Scotland and England, 1500-1540" By Jon Robinson, Ashgate, 2008, Pg. 4-7:

In order to ascertain insights into the true motives of the poet's production of the verse, and a more enlightened understanding of particular poems and the culture within which they were produced, it is useful to look at the possible pragmatic reasons behind the production of court poetry and ask questions concerning the circumstances of the initial performance of the verse. Why was the poem produced? For whom was it produced? What are the implications of reading the poems with distinct ideological, social, political, national, or gender themes, embedded within them, to a court audience? How would the courtly audience have reacted to such a poem? How would the monarch have reacted? What would the poet gain from its production? Is the verse intended to exclude or include sections of the court or nation, or certain specific behavioural characteristics, or for that matter certain gender traits?

. . .Poems in the early sixteenth century were not hidebound repositories of traditional and universal truisms, they were complex creations laden with meanings ascertainable from outside the text, from the culture and society in which they were produced. The notion of poetry as 'a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', based on 'emotion recollected in tranquillity', such as is associated with William Wordsworth or John Keats, would have been totally alien to men such as Dunbar, Wyatt and their contemporaries who served at court.