Cultures of Political Counsel. Liverpool: Harald E. Braun, School of History, University of Liverpool, 14.07.2007-16.07.2007.
Reviewed by Harald E. Braun
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (November, 2007)
Cultures of Political Counsel
The first in a series of planned workshops intended to sketch out a cultural and intellectual history of political advice from the Middle Ages to the present, this three-day workshop offered participants an opportunity to discuss the meaning and function of counsel in Europe from c. 800-1800. Twenty-one papers were presented, ranging widely in scope and context from Carolingian convocations on the ordering of time to Catherine the Great’s conversations with the French philosopher Denis Diderot on social reform in the 1770s. It is often said that a conference is only as good as the papers that are given, and the intellectually muscular presentations and engaging discussions at this workshop certainly made it an impressive event. However, the success of this conference owed much to the efficient organisation and infectious exuberance of its organiser, Harald E. Braun, School of History, University of Liverpool. The conference was generously sponsored by the Faculty of Arts, University of Liverpool, the Royal Historical Society, and the Society for Renaissance Studies. Thanks to their efforts and support, the workshop generated a relaxed but vibrant atmosphere, and its participants came away buzzing with new ideas for further research.
The problem of defining ‘counsel’, and who was able to give political advice and by what authority, was raised at the beginning of the workshop by Dame JANET NELSON (King’s College, London). Dame Janet reflected on the often confused etymologies of the English words ‘counsel’ and ‘council’, etymologies rooted in the Latin consilium and concilium and conflated in the French word conseil. As the papers progressed it became clear that a range of people could assume the mantle of ‘counsellor’ who did not necessarily sit on an official ‘council’. Notably, NICOLE REINHARDT (Lyons) examined the role of the royal Confessor in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Spain and France, who had privileged access to the monarch but was not responsible to other ministers, and BRIGITTE RESL (Liverpool) described Bishop Otto of Passau’s role in arbitrating between counts, dukes, kings and emperor. Speakers mentioned many other ‘alternative’ political counsellors without discussing them in detail - such as female religious (e.g. Catherine of Sienna), fathers (for example James VI, whose Basilikon Doron was one of the few mirror-for-princes works to be published by a monarch), sisters (for example Marguerite of Navarre’s letters of advice to her brother Francis, King of France) and other members of the royal family. Each kind of conciliar identity involved its own set of rhetorical formulae and vocabulary, allowing the prospective counsellor to assume the necessary degree of intellectual or moral authority by invoking kinship relation, academic reputation, social rank or divine inspiration. In light of this, the concept of a ‘natural’ counsellor, as someone with the requisite professional or hereditary skills, was actually malleable to circumstance.
One of the archetypal images of good counsel was the ‘mirror’, in which the prince was encouraged, through debate and discussion with his or her advisors, to examine and critically assess the moral or historical justifications for their actions. Medieval and Early Modern Christian rulers were encouraged to look to the Bible as the ultimate speculum principis, and scriptural exempla were drawn on in sermons, coronation processions, progresses and theatrical performances. Although most works of political advice drew on recurring themes of mutual obligation and moral duty, RUDOLF SCHÜSSLER (Bayreuth) demonstrated how several early modern political commentators applied theories of Pyrrhonian skepticism to challenge lapidary assumptions of best practice. SIMON TEUSCHER (Zürich) and MAGNUS RYAN (Cambridge) drew attention to the ways in which legal advice and law books functioned as an alternative form of ‘moral’ counsel in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. ALISTAIR MALCOM (Limerick), on the other hand, used the example of Philip IV’s adviser Count Peñaranda to demonstrate how jurists could be conflicted over whether laws should bind the king or vice versa, and HARALD E. BRAUN (Liverpool) described how sixteenth century Spanish theologians merged humanist and scholastic discourses into a language of prudence to rival Machiavellian reason of state. By the sixteenth century, however, the ruler was not necessarily the exclusive audience of such literature. ANNE MCLAREN (Liverpool) identified the anonymous Defence of the … execution of the Queene of Scots (1587) as an attempt to ‘counsel’ the English and European public in the moral justifications for regicide.
Several presenters demonstrated that counsel could be communicated through a variety of media to different effect. JODI CAMPBELL (Texan Christian University) described how the timeless metaphor of the political world as a stage took on literal significance in seventeenth-century Spain, where the theatre provided an opportunity for common people to indirectly counsel their monarch or to criticise his courtly councillors. The tradition of epistolary advice was touched on by SERENA FERENTE (King’s College London) in her paper on Angelo Acciaioli’s correspondence with Francesco Sforza, in which the Florentine diplomat displayed a range of strategies to court the affection and patronage of the new Duke of Milan. The diplomatic value attached to letters of advice passed between monarchs was the subject of RAYNE ALLINSON’S (Oxford) paper on the correspondence between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Books of political advice could be dedicated and presented to rulers as New Year’s gifts, or taught to them (sometimes surreptitiously) in the schoolroom, as AYSHA POLLNITZ (Cambridge) illustrated with reference to Edward VI’s would-be counsellor William Thomas. Louis XIV’s sumptuously decorated financial ledgers, as described by JACOB SOLL (Rutgers), provided an excellent example of how practical instruments of royal pedagogy could be transmuted into regal accessories. Portraits, engravings and other visual media could also provide a subtle - though sometimes subversive - medium for counsel, although most papers focussed on literary examples.
In the process of defining the counsellor’s practical role in the day-to-day process of governmental decision-making, historiographical issues were raised relating to the nature of documentary evidence and its interpretation. JONATHAN ELUKIN (Trinity College, Hartford) drew attention to the ‘problem’ of secrecy surrounding the giving and receiving of counsel, and how historians throughout the medieval and early modern period decided to interpret the silence or equivocations of their sources. Since most of the primary sources relating to the processes of government were written down, preserved and transmitted by counsellors and their secretaries, to what extent is the study of political history really a history of the workings of a small but dedicated group of bureaucrats? Furthermore, the monarch’s ability to select worthy councillors and their perceived receptivity to good counsel is a recurring theme in historical assessments of their reigns. This point was illustrated by PAULINE STAFFORD (Liverpool) in her paper on the moulding of the historical reputation of Æthelred Unræd (‘noble counsel’/ ‘no counsel’) in the eleventh century, and by COURTNEY M. BOOKER (British Columbia) who assessed the contrasting influence of Augustinian and Benedictine ideologies in the ninth-century reign of Louis the Pious.
The often complex personal relationship between a monarch and his or her counsellors has often been abstracted in terms of power versus intellect, force versus contemplation - two polarities providing a necessary balance for each other. In practice, however, this relationship was continually fraught with conflict and mutual manipulation, as several speakers demonstrated. THOMAS BISKUP (Hull/Berlin) spoke of how the eighteenth-century German monarchs sought out various ‘enlightened’ thinkers to aid them in ordering and expanding their territories, who in turn were provided with patronage and access to courtly society. In the same century, many of the British writers who were working to manufacture an ideology of Empire were members of the Council of Trade and Plantations and of the Royal Society, with direct financial interest either in the West or East Indies. As EVA BOTELLA-ORDINAS (Harvard/Madrid) explained, the practical economic or political interests of government were often shrouded in the respectable cloak of intellectual discourse.
Over three days of presentation, discussion and some heated debate, several recurring themes emerged, including Trust, Independence and Dependence, Expertise and Information, Education, Gender, Privacy and Publicity, and Prophecy. In the plenary discussion it was noted that the concept of political counsel not only revolved around a set of binary relationships (e.g. between ruler and minister, male and female, public and private) but also around more fluid and often indistinct axes, such as the often indeterminate relation of power to authority. As JANET COLEMAN (London School of Economics) argued in her paper on Richard II and the idea of ‘virtuous’ monarchy, the relationship between kings (who held executive power in decision-making) and their counsellors (who held a corresponding degree of moral and constitutional authority) was continually subject to negotiation and redefinition.
The papers presented in this workshop traversed cultural, geographical, thematic and methodological boundaries, illustrating how the concept of ‘counsel’ has been continually redefined over the centuries to suit different personal and political ends. Yet each paper was neatly linked together by aspects of continuity, suggesting that the medieval and early modern engagement in political advice (dependant as it always has been on the negotiation of consistently complex inter-personal relationships) may have something valuable to teach us about our own modern political systems.
Cultures of Political Counsel, 14-16 July 2007
Foresight Centre, University of Liverpool
SATURDAY, 14 July 2007
Session One: Counsel and Crisis
Pauline Stafford, Liverpool: Counsel in an Age of Conquest
Brigitte Resl, Liverpool: The Bishop as Arbitrator: Bishop Otto of Passau and Political Conflicts around 1250
Magnus Ryan, Cambridge: Advising the Pope: John XXII and his Lawyers
Session Two: Counsel and Expertise, Part One
Nicole Reinhardt, Lyons: How to be a Confessor? The Problem of Theological Counsel in France and Spain (17th to 18th centuries)
Jacob Soll, Rutgers: Informing the Sun King: Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the Rise of Encyclopedic Administration
Session Three: Counsel and Expertise, Part Two
Tim Hochstrasser, LSE: Diderot, Catherine and the 'Observations on the Nakaz’
Thomas Biskup, Hull: Patterns of Advice in the 18C: the Courts of Brunswick and Berlin and the Problem of the Enlightened Courtier
SUNDAY, 15 July 2007
Session Four: Procedures, Spaces and Rituals
James Palmer, Nottingham: Ordering Time, Ordering Empire: Cycles and Chronology in Carolingian politics
Jodi Campbell, Texas Christian: Political Counsel on Stage: Critiques of Kingship in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Drama
Jonathan Elukin, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut: Political Counsel and the Writing of History: the Problem of Secrecy
Session Five: Counsel and Expertise, Part Three
Alistair Malcolm, Limerick: Pragmatism and the Rule of Favourites: the Count of Peñaranda (1596–1676) as Jurist and Adviser to Philip IV
Eva Botella, Harvard: Prophecy and Commerce. Spanish and British Imperial
Legitimation in Times of Crisis (1685-1714)
Session Six: Making and Communicating Decisions
Aysha Pollnitz, Cambridge: Rival Counsels in the Education of Edward VI
J.H. Burns, UCL/Anne McLaren, Liverpool: Defending the Indefensible? ‘A defence of the execution of the Queene of Scots’ (1587)
Rayne Allinson, Oxford: Queen Elizabeth I's Letters of Advice to Other European Monarchs
MONDAY, 16 July 2007
Session Seven: Languages, Rhetoric and Strategies of Counsel, Part One
Courtney Booker, British Columbia: HLVDOVVICVS MONACHIVS, HLVDOVVICVS EQVITATIVS: The Political Theology of Louis the Pious
Simon Teuscher, Basel: Turning Advices into Laws. Reshaping Coutumiers and Rechtsbücher around 1300
Serena Ferente, KCL: From the City to the Court, and Back: Delusions of an Expert (Angelo Acciaioli, 1450-1470)
Session Eight: Languages, Rhetoric and Strategies of Counsel, Part Two
Janet Coleman, LSE: A Culture of Political Counsel: the Case of 14C England and 'virtuous' monarchy
Harald Braun, Liverpool: Manipulating the Reader in Early Modern Spain
Rudolf Schüssler, Bayreuth: The Skeptical Counsellor: Political Skepticism in Early Modern Times
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