Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700

Since late September, we’ve been working with a new project at the University of Oxford, called ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’, and the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Oxford to put together series of blogs that explore European Parliamentary Culture. The series is focused on the Early Modern period – roughly 1500-1700 – but they have ranged more widely, seeking to bring in some scholars of the more recent past to provide different perspectives and insights that might stimulate new thinking. We’re reposting some of the blogs here, with thanks to the CIH and to our colleagues who have commissioned, edited and authored the blogs. You are welcome to join us online on 5th January at the CIH when we’ll be bringing together contributors to the series and others to talk about Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, and to launch an exciting programme of work and conferences over the coming year.

This blog was originally posted on 29 September 2021, written by Professor Paulina KewesProfessor Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves and History of Parliament director Dr Paul Seaward.

The authors of this blog may have a claim to the invention of the concept ‘early modern parliamentary culture’. A simple Google search produces only three results, and none of them defines the concept, let alone placing it centre stage. Which is odd, given that political assemblies – parliaments, diets, states, estates, SejmCortesRiksdag – were common in late medieval Europe and have long been a staple subject of national and international historiographies focusing on the big themes of power and its distribution. But while the cultures of the other major institutions which structured political life – notably monarchies and royal courts – have been the subject of intensive and transnational study, the culture of parliaments, the ideas, habits of mind and routine practice which shaped them, is usually passed by. We believe that by bringing the tools of intellectual, transnational and cultural history to the study of parliaments, we can begin to transform the way in which we think about early modern political institutions.

Polish Sejm, in Jan Łaski Statute, Commune incliti Poloniae Regni priuilegium constitutionum et indultuum publicitus decretorum approbatorumque (Cracouie, 1506).

First, through intellectual history. Intellectual historians of the early modern era naturally think in terms of concepts – representation, republicanism, absolutism – rather than institutions. And while they have recognised the importance of understanding the context within which those concepts are wielded as moves in current political arguments, the dominant legal-constitutional approaches to parliamentary history and nation-specific scholarly traditions have, perhaps, tended to put off intellectual historians from thinking more closely about the institutional contexts in which they are wielded.

But political assemblies, especially when they play the role of representative institutions, are at the centre not only of politics, but also of how politics is conceived. They function in the social world and are shaped by language and discourse; and yet they also shape it. The rich and eclectic political language of early modern Europe, indebted to classical antiquity for many of its concepts, categories and comparisons, was deployed to describe or to criticise these existing institutions. What marked the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm in the eyes of Jean de Monluc, the leader of the French envoys promoting the election of Henry Valois to the Polish throne in 1573, was its uprightness and freedom. Addressing the Polish senators and noble delegates whose favour he sought, Monluc stressed that their large assemblies, to which so great a multitude of nobles were accustomed, had always been free from the corruption endemic to Roman assemblies. And upon his election, Henry was required to promise the nobility of Poland-Lithuania that he would convene a general Sejm at least once every two years for six weeks and to acknowledge that as king he had no right to impose new taxes without approval of the Sejm. Thereafter, an oath to uphold these provisions, called the Henrician Articles, was required of every king-elect. The Sejm, composed of the king, the senate and the house of delegates, thus became a constitutionally guaranteed institution, and was situated at the centre of the political life of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Discussion of politics was steeped in, and centred around, its existence.

Something similar might be said of England or of the Netherlands: there has been a lively debate about the existence in England of republicanism, or ‘monarchical republicanism’, and participatory politics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This debate is placed remarkably rarely in the context of a vigorous, and intensifying, parliamentary culture. Yet, when thinking about how politics worked, people were thinking as much about interactions in political assemblies as they were of the limited circles of courtly counsel.

Interior of the Great Hall on the Binnenhof in The Hague, during the Great Assembly of the States-General in 1651 (c. 1651) attributed to Bartholomeus van Bassen, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Second, through a transnational history of parliamentary cultures…

To continue reading this blog on the University of Oxford Centre for Intellectual History’s website, click here.

Paulina Kewes

Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves

Paul Seaward 

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