Collaborative Research Centre 496, Project C1, University of Muenster in Cooperation with
Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Wassenaar
Performing and Negotiating.
Practices of Estates’ Institutions in Early Modern Europe
03/21/2007 - 03/23/2007, Wassenaar (NL)
There is hardly any subject of historical research receiving as much permanent interest as the Estates’ institutions of pre-modern times. This is not only because they are undoubtedly of central significance to the sociopolitical structures all over Early Modern Europe. From the very beginning of their historicization, at the start of the 19th century, the debate on the Estates was basically stimulated by passionate and controversial opinions. For a long time, the dominating view was that institutional representation of the Estates was the expression of traditionally legitimated particular interest blocking the progress towards the modern power state. Other views, on the contrary, just emphasized the Estates' importance for the building and stabilization of the body politic. After the Second World War, this ambivalence about traditionalism and modernism made the Estates a characteristic subject of Early Modern History. Because of partial similarities to modern parliament it seemed to be especially inviting to attribute achievements of shaping tradition and future orientation to the Estates.
In this sense, the history of the Estates was written as constitutional history, of course, of a pre-constitutional period. This is why the attempts to re-evaluate the Estates concentrated on certain aspects which were best adapted for perceiving and reconstructing constitutional structures in a modern sense. This applies to the formation of the institutions of the Estates: the chamber system, but also offices and administrative bodies, on the one hand. On the other hand, it applies to the results produced by the Estates' participation, in the first instance, the permanent normative arrangements defining relationships and rights between the prince and the Estates, covenants or "fundamental laws" in a broad sense. In the second instance, also everyday decisions, especially with regard to taxation, were examined. Undoubtedly, a deep insight was provided this way. In any case, the topics of research were chosen according to modern concepts of constitutional structures.
Especially from the point of view of recent Early Modern research, the question arises, however, to what extent specifically pre-modern aspects of the Estates have been lost sight of. As long as historical research focused on the formation of modern state power, anything not enhancing the efficiency of rule was disregarded, even by researchers aiming at the rehabilitation of the Estates. Recent discussions, however, have increasingly recognized the significance and relevance of what was considered accidental and negligible from the perspective of constitutional history, i.e. the ceremonial shaping. The drive to reconsider baroque formality and performance was initiated by court research which revealed an underlying rationality of its own, on the one hand, though still in a sense of rational strategies of rule, but which found them also, on the other hand, to be a form of expression sui generis of the concept of values of the corporate society.
To the extent to which sociologists and ethnologists, among others, began to perceive the meaningfulness of symbolic actions, even at the present time, the examination of symbolic communication became a broad paradigm of research beyond mere instrumental-technical interpretation. Symbolic acts, within the political and social sphere, are believed to include semantics of social values and relationships which are performatively visualized, communicated, realized and thus stabilized, sometimes, however, called in question. This applies not only to court society but also, for instance, to diplomatic communication as well as social representation in urban societies, and, not in the last instance, to the forms of political participation. In this respect, the planned meeting wants to put initial approaches on a more solid basis.
In this sense, the occupation with the symbolic character of the Estates’ practices means only, at first, broadening the traditional approach. Assemblies of the Estates are to be perceived as a whole, including the performative dimension. From this point of view, however, they appear in a new light. The assemblies, then, do no longer appear as mere decision-making bodies to be measured by their competences and results, but rather as an embodiment of meaningful action, not just as a structure, but as structured acting which does not only produce decisions, but rather meaning and legitimation. Perhaps this would explain the continuity of the Estates’ assemblies at times when political participation in the proper sense could no longer be realized. In so far, it should be discussed whether this symbolic function alone could establish the assemblies’ necessity.
With this approach, therefore, consideration should also be given to overcoming the dichotomy of seemingly merely performative and seemingly merely instrumental actions. The assumption should be examined if not, potentially, each action within the framework of the Estates’ assemblies included an instrumental-technical as well as a symbolic-expressive dimension the perception of which would, then, be only a question of perspective. In particular, the procedure of assemblies of the Estates will be divisible into more or less typical single acts, each of their own order. This applies to performances in a narrow sense, as the marking of beginning and ending, the proclamation of proposition and decision, as well as, in a broader sense, the rankings, negotiations, inquiries and decisions. Symbolic-expressive and instrumental-technical function will prove different in importance as well as in the degree of complexity and obligatory character of single acts. Consideration should also be given to the question to what extent certain actions aimed at establishing alternative and less formalized practices, as seems to apply to the system of committees.
According to the topic in question, contributions should concentrate on the Early Modern period. Problems of the emergence of the Estates’ institutions in the Late Middle Ages as well as the question of continuity with regard to 19th century parliamentarian institutions should be kept in the background. In any case, it is desirable to open up two levels of comparison by reviewing different territories of the Holy Roman Empire and by including special examples from other parts of Europe.
Proposals including proposed title and abstract (recommended length 1-2 pages) are expected by 15 November 2006.
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