Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700: The State of Research

In our latest blog we’re returning to the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project. Since autumn 2021, we have been working with the University of Oxford 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.

On 22-24 June the Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture project is hosting an international conference at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, discussing ‘Concepts, Methods & Approaches’. Registration has now closed, but you can follow the conference on the CIH website and via the Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700 twitter page.

This blog was originally posted on 7 December 2021, written by Wim Blockman, Emeritus Professor, Leiden University.

Research into representative institutions has a long history. Starting in the nineteenth century, newly established national states have supported their legitimacy by promoting the publication of extensive source material concerning the prehistory of their parliaments. That is still happening, for example in commission from the regional parliaments of Catalonia and Sardinia, and for the kingdom of Aragon. Portugal, too, celebrates the parliamentary democracy it acquired in 1974 with a richly sourced publication about the medieval Cortes. Since September 2021 the resolutions of the Dutch States General in the 18th century are accessible online; this resource should be extended to the 16th and 17th centuries by 2023.

Numerous studies that described institutions in a regional or national context followed. The multiplicity of the institutions’ names is linked to regional differences in their composition and activities. This makes the comparison among countries rather difficult. Researchers therefore exhibit a tendency to interpret the institution that they are describing as a unique phenomenon and in any case to treat it as a special occurrence. On the other hand, there is a tendency in the historiography to elevate one specific concept to a general model, as often happened with ‘three Estates’, while reality exhibits a lot of diversity.

Mural of the Diputación del General in the Palau de la Generalitat, Valencia. Photo by Wim Blockmans.

In his impressive comparison of the Estates in the countries ruled by the Habsburg monarchy, Petr Mat’a points to the inhibitions (he refers to ‘blinders’) imposed by historical or contemporary regional or national boundaries (Habilitation thesis Vienna, 2020). Moreover, national traditions exhibit very different dividing lines: in Bohemia and Moravia the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 is held to be an absolute break with the past, as a result of which continuity is lost from sight. Furthermore, Mat’a rightly criticizes the explicitly dualistic approach that particularly marks German-language research, whereby rulers and estates were supposed to be engaged in a zero-sum game in which each aimed solely at the other’s downfall. The centuries-long functioning of monarchies with representative institutions points at variable forms of interpenetration. The intermediary power of representative institutions could be functional in both directions without necessarily annihilating the other side, as the King of Denmark could stop summoning the Rigsdag after 1660.

The vision from the point of view of the monarchy characterizes the most recent overview published by Michael Graves in an educational series in 2001. He deals principally with the formal aspects of representative assemblies at the level of a large number of European states, from the earliest reports in the twelfth century to the end of the seventeenth. It is unclear why the eighteenth century is excluded, but he does allow the longue durée to appear to full advantage and he processes a lot of information. The brief handbook by Alec R. Myers, dealing with all of Europe in the ancien régime, offers the best concise overview of the subject but is by now half a century old. Back in 1975, he observed that:

in the last forty years much research has been done on particular parliaments and on special aspects of their organization and role; but this is the first comprehensive study of their rise and progress as a phenomenon of Western Europe.

One year later, his German colleague Gerhard Oestreich called for comparative research on this matter, applying ‘fundamental categories’ as analytical tools:

the essential problem is the fact that each national evolution developed in its own way, differently from the others. Consequently, most researchers until now considered it nearly impossible to attain a comprehensive vision of the European development. […]

A new analysis [is needed] of the fundamental categories […] forming the precondition for the comparative work which remains the aim of our research.

Since then, many sources and partial studies have been published, mostly focussed on normative frameworks and confined by current state boundaries, but a comparative study that tries to explain the evolution of the actual influence of these institutions is still lacking. The book Parlementer by Michel Hébert (2014) supplies this magisterially for western Europe before 1500, but central and northern Europe remain outside its consideration. These regions are dealt with in a much shorter overview that he published in 2018.

 It is my conviction, however, that the chronological division between the ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘(early) Modern period’ neglects the continuity of representative institutions to the end of the ancien régime

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

Wim Blockman

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