Jeroen Duindam. Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe's Dynastic Rivals, 1550-1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 349 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-82262-6.
Reviewed by Mara Wade (Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-German (February, 2005)
Households and Elias: A Return to the Sources
In the successor volume to his path-breaking book Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court (English version, Amsterdam 1995; Dutch 1992), Duindam once again takes up the challenge offered us by Norbert Elias's The Court Society (1969; English 1983) and, on the basis of exhaustive archival research, delves into the court households of Vienna and Versailles. By teasing out the expenses of the court households and separating these costs, as far as possible on the basis of preserved sources, from those of the governments in general, Duindam overturns much received knowledge about life at court and the role of the courtier at two of the most important courts of early modern Europe--Vienna and Versailles. Most importantly, Duindam simultaneously offers scholars a comparative perspective, an aspect completely lacking in his predecessor's study.
In his introduction, Duindam presents an overview of his subject from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century with the thesis that court households evolved through a long and complex process from a "multi-layered service elite that sought to legitimize itself through genealogy" to the modern governmental state and its services (p. 6). He sees the court as an evolving institution, slowly changing as it needed to govern larger territories. This process constituted an inversion of earlier priorities whereby with the establishment of the modern territorial state "the subservient administrative compartment with the ruler's household now reigns supreme, whereas the modern equivalents of the household are either relegated to a constitutionally defined compartment within the state, or have no formal significance" (p. 7). Duindam convincingly argues that the obsession of nineteenth-century historians with tracing the origins of modern nation states led them--and us--to focus on the administrative offices and thereby to underestimate the complex role of both the court household and courtiers in early modern Europe. Rather than constituting an aggregate of intimidated sycophants, courtiers fulfilled necessary roles at court and assumed significant positions in the decision-making process. Duindam postulates that both Elias's focus on concepts and the post-modern emphasis of deconstruction have led scholars of the court away from the sources, the hard data, necessary to inform our understanding of our very objects of study, and he seeks with this book to address this imbalance. The compartmentalized thinking which has long characterized many aspects of court studies--for example, the strict division between household and government and the view of ceremony as either calculated manipulation or an impenetrable web of semiotic signs--is questioned here. While the revision of the history of absolutism and the new emphasis on the study of court elites do not begin here with Duindam, with his ambitious study he covers a large amount of new territory and sets the bar for further research. Precisely by investigating Elias's own object of study, the early modern French court, and juxtaposing these findings against comparable data for the Viennese court during the same era, Duindam clearly demonstrates that court office was not inevitably connected to impotence and decline.
His book addresses several critical areas of concern: who is at court and how are they paid; what are their daily activities and the ceremonies attendant on them; what is the situation of the court household in the body politic and its relevance for the society at large; who makes decisions in which constellations; and where does actual power reside. He undertakes to answer these questions by locating and studying as many court accounts and records of payment as possible. While the preserved sources are uneven and the record keeping of the two courts in no way parallel, the preserved documents are more than sufficient to begin to answer these questions. Duindam's initial forays into these sources will certainly prompt further uncovering of other portions of national archives which can be put to further use, broadening our knowledge base.
Duindam's conclusions are carefully laid out at the end of each chapter, while the actual conclusion of the book draws overarching connections and poses important questions for future research. He neatly summarizes the problems facing the monarch and his greatest nobles at the beginning of the time period covered in his investigation: "the rise of non-noble service elites and the exacerbation of religious discord" (p. 41). His three lengthy sections, "Contours" (pp. 45-128), "Court Life" (pp. 131-221), and "Power" (pp. 223-297) comprise the core of his arguments and balance his study with an overview of the hard data, the rhythms, and the loci of power of court life respectively. "Contours" outlines in broad strokes the costs, structures, and numbers of the two courts and concludes with a long overview of the income and status of these elites. He conclusively demonstrates that the aggregate costs for court household expenditures constituted the single largest outlay of expenses--excepting war and debt--for both Vienna and Versailles, while the Hapsburg expenditure remained consistently only a fraction of the French costs (p. 124). He then reads these numbers across the hierarchies of the respective courts in "status and income" (pp. 90-128). In the section entitled "Court Life," Duindam presents a "calendar of court" (pp. 131-180) in a meticulous overview of the annual, weekly, and daily life at court according to the liturgical and seasonal year. A presentation of the hierarchies at court and their shifting status and ceremonial roles follows (pp. 181-221). In the section entitled "Power," Duindam looks at "Levels and forms of power at court" (pp. 223-259), admitting that this area needs much more study, as the three recognized markers of power--prestige, access, and proximity to decision-making--make clear that court nobles formed an outstanding power elite, yet "demonstrable influence on major policy decisions" merits "more study" (pp. 258-259). His "Conclusions and Conjectures" summarize this broad range of material and the conclusions he has drawn, while pointing the way for new questions to be posed of this corpus. He states unequivocally that the prejudice of earlier historians against the court as a center of impotent display is false (p. 320), and thereby gives fresh impetus and legitimacy to court studies.
Duindam's command of a wide range of manuscript and print sources is particularly impressive, and the enormous physical dimensions of his task will be clear to every reader. It immediately becomes evident that the less frequently researched manuscript accounts of court life often contradict the more frequently studied printed rules detailing court ceremony and behavior, thus confirming the necessity of archival work and a reassessment of received wisdom about courts. Further, Duindam's ability to draw parallels across diverse sources and culturally differing establishments over a time span of more than two hundred years makes this book a valuable resource. An appendix of terms for court positions in French and German and their approximate English equivalents and translations would have helped scholars (and especially the students) use this book to better advantage. Even a user familiar with court functions across Europe finds herself paging back and forth to check which Viennese office is being compared to which French office. Translation of passages in archaic language and genealogical tables would also make the volume more accessible, as the discussions often presume that the reader is familiar with all rulers at both courts. Since this volume will most certainly be used--much like Volker Bauer's typology of German courts, Die höfische Gesellschaft in Deutschland von der Mitte des 17. bis zum Ausgang des Jahrhunderts (1993)--as a model for other comparative studies, such additions in the form of lists and appendices should be included in a future edition. While gender study is not the focus of Duindam's undertaking, it is refreshing to note that in a few instances where his sources enable a discussion of the females at court, Duindam does address issues of sex and gender.
The illustrations are well chosen, presenting many images that are new and all of them in a new context, although it is unclear why two unnumbered images are reproduced separately from the usual mid-volume gathering of the forty numbered illustrations. The overall quality of the reproductions is poor given the marked advances in working with digital images. The copy of Duindam's book sent to this reviewer was an example of extremely poor printing--the opening pages are so black they can hardly be read, looking very much like poor photocopies. Cambridge University Press needs to offer a better physical product to hold such solid scholarly research.
While Elias can be rightly credited with making court studies an acceptable area of scholarly study, Duindam can be credited with breaking the iron-clad grip of Elias and other historians on the field and initiating new areas of investigation. This volume will attract as much criticism as it does praise, but no future scholar of Vienna or Versailles will be able to ignore his carefully researched book. Comparatists are well advised to study it closely. This publication--like that of Elias before him--will provide the impetus for much new scholarship in the historiography of the early modern European court.
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Mara Wade. Review of Duindam, Jeroen, Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe's Dynastic Rivals, 1550-1780.
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