Writing rebellion in early modern diplomacy (book abstract)

Editors: Malte Griesse, Monika Barget, David de Boer

In a collaborative endeavour, the research group “Revolts as Communicative Events in the Early Modern Period” based in Konstanz, Germany, has assembled scholars from all across Europe (including Russia) and the United States to contribute collectively to a book on diplomacy and its role in early modern revolts.

Over the past decades, New Diplomatic History has provided valuable insight in early modern cultures of diplomacy by focusing on diplomatic practices and the conflicts caused by dissonance in protocol and etiquette.Building on the idea of the diplomat as an agent negotiating between different cultures, we aim to bring the role of the diplomat as a news provider and influential interpreter of foreign events to light. Traditional diplomatic historians have extensively studied the role of ambassadors in international matters. Another considerable part of the diplomat’s function was to reflect on the internal affairs of his country of residence. However, the ways in which envoys communicated internal conflicts – such as uprisings, revolts, and revolutions – has remained virtually unexplored. In our book, we treat these cross-cultural perceptions of domestic political conflicts by diplomatic agents in early modern Europe. On the one hand, such patterns of diplomatic reception, representation and interpretation were informed by foreign policy interests; but on the other hand, they were also shaped by cultural differences and conscious or unconscious attempts to translate between different political mindsets. Revolts were a sign of weakness and foreign governments often tried to exploit them with the help of their diplomatic agents. But at the same time, they could also give rise to a self-reflexive move, where the depiction of a rebellion abroad was written and/or read as an implicit reflection of an actual or potential analogous event at home. Governments feared “contagion”, i.e. the dissemination of a revolt across borders through the circulation of information, rumors and knowledge. And sometimes they even tried to draw lessons from experience abroad, in order to optimize their own domestic policy with regard to preventive measures. In practice, these different avenues of reception often overlapped and the diplomat became a bridge, an interpretative link between foreign and domestic policies.

Most importantly, cross-border perceptions voiced through arcane diplomatic channels frequently counterbalanced policies of what we call damnatio memoriae: Although rebellions were essentially public conflicts in which social actors tried to articulate and publicize their claims as pertaining to the common good, governments did everything they could to downplay the events and to refute their universal nature. As long as rebellions were in full swing and rebels could freely advertise their claims, this objective was, of course, unattainable: The more wide-reaching insurgent movements became, the more authorities were forced to engage in counter-propagandistic efforts and to respond directly to the grievances brought forth by oppositions. But once they managed to crush a rebellion and consolidate their power, governments generally tried to extinguish its memory and to cover up their own administrative failures. Official accounts were occupied with representations of punishment and executions, but there was no further mention of the preceding events of resistance. The tightly knot European network of diplomacy, however, often preserved and spread knowledge of the defeated insurgents’ motives against all odds. Although censorship was strictly enforced until at least the late 17th century, early modern authorities could hardly ever prevent the publication and circulation of foreign accounts. And it is striking how well informed early modern diplomats proved to be. Apart from their own experiences and oral reports, they regularly forwarded intercepted letters and a wide range of printed material (e.g. caricatures, press-clippings and pamphlets) to their masters abroad. In many cases, diplomatic eagerness has saved from complete obliteration oppositional publications, which were eventually banned and destroyed in their country of origin.

Furthermore, reflections of foreign crisis gave attentive diplomats a chance to implicitly consider grievances and rebellion in their home countries. Government failures witnessed abroad could then be turned into advice to their ruling authorities. It was through the interpretation of revolts abroad that potential preventive strategies could be debated and recommended by political authors.


In principle, governments were interested in such advice, even more so as their own practices of damnatio memoriae left them with very limited documentation of model cases for targeted consultation. Learned debates on how to prevent rebellion, which mostly drew on an abundance of foreign examples, were therefore of considerable interest to rulers who feared sedition.
In our international and transcultural analysis, we show what information early modern governments were particularly interested in, how they instructed their diplomats to retrieve it, what processes of cultural translation took place in diplomatic exchange and how the generated material was perceived and made use of. This includes questions of impact and effectivity as well as long-term communicational patterns. For example, arcane and public channels of communication were by far not as rigorously separated as it is often assumed. In many cases diplomats passed information about rebellions on to the press or even published them independently, either anonymously or under their proper names. This highlights the impact which different channels of communication had on both the selection of information and on the ways in which they were explained and interpreted. We also ask how the publication of formerly arcane information was perceived and judged by the governments initially concerned. As diplomatic records have never been systematically studied in this very respect, the focus of our book offers a considerable expansion of both “traditional” and “new” diplomatic history.
In addition, our book provides an integrated pan-European perspective on diplomatic communication.
The early modern period was not only the era of print revolution, but also witnessed an enormous intensification of diplomatic relations. A steadily growing number of permanent residents communicated with their governments in increasing regularity and detail. But while the printing revolution mainly affected central and Western Europe, the establishment of continual diplomatic relations and networks also concerned the Orthodox and Islamic worlds. These often neglected peripheries of early modern Europe are integral parts of our joint effort. Conveying the copiousness of early-modern cultures of diplomatic observation and policy-making, the collective book will inspire deepened academic debate on the complex and influential role of diplomats and diplomatic networks in an early information society.


Our international book “Ink and Blood: Writing Rebellion in Early Modern Diplomacy” is addressed to all scholars of the humanities interested in political communication.

Recent debates on secret service activities, which were triggered by Edward Snowden’s revelations and the international NSA crisis, have drawn much public attention to patterns of government communication and foreign intelligence. Providing an historical voice in this debate our work will also appeal to a non-specialist audience all across Western Europe, Russia and the US.

There have been many influential publications from the fields of both classical and new diplomatic history. A couple of works have exploited diplomatic accounts as source material on revolts in Russia, but they have hardly ever focused on diplomats’ cross-cultural bridging function. Only in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in the Transcultural Representations (ed. by M. Griesse, 2014) aspects of cross-border reception are addressed, but the main focus is on public accounts. In France the works by Lucien Bely and his students on early modern diplomacy are of interest. Some of them have put particular emphasis on espionage (Lucien Bely, Espions et ambassadeurs au temps de Louis XIV, Fayard 1990, more recently Alain Hugon, Au service du Roi Catholique, «honorables ambassadeurs» et «divins espions» : représentation diplomatique et service secret dans les relations hispano-françaises de 1598 à 1635). In Germany the focus is rather on diplomatic encounters and clashing conceptions of protocol and etiquette. There has been some work on Venetian relazioni and Vatican diplomacy, but hardly anything has been published in English. Although the United Provinces were an important and unique diplomatic actor in Europe, Dutch diplomatic correspondence remains to be explored. In Britain and the US, publications on diplomatic history have a strong modern and contemporary focus (19th century to the present day) and especially deal with imperialism, decolonization and international hegemony. The early modern foundations of diplomatic relations and foreign intelligence as well as their influence on the shaping of national constitutions are therefore a much needed new field of research.

Our collective study stands out due to its precise analysis of archival sources from all major players on the international scene of early modern Europe. Many of the sources cited in the respective chapters have never appeared in print before and will give valuable insight into the collection, categorization and safekeeping of early modern diplomatic reports throughout the ages.

In a special effort to incite further academic research and discussion, every author contributing to our book will in fact publish an original extract from one of the sources at the end of each chapter. This careful editing will allow readers to sense the linguistic and argumentative quality of diplomatic reports in different times and countries, and to understand the meta-informational value of both artfully written letters and hastily scribbled notes.
Especially literary scholars might take an unprecedented interest in the rhetoric of diplomatic correspondence and be encouraged to explore this field in their own research.
At the same time, our attention to the production, transportation and reception of diplomatic media reaches out to scholars of material culture studies and object-oriented memory studies.

Our aim is to advertise the book not only on our own academic blog and university homepage, but also to promote the publication among the many scholars and interdisciplinary research groups with whom we closely cooperate within Europe and beyond.
Our flourishing cooperations include a group of French researchers primarily based at the University of Caen, who run the international project “Cultures des Révoltes et Révolutions” (CURR). Apart from French, German, Russian and Swiss researchers, this cooperation also assembles Dutch and English scholars. A considerable part of our research is carried out at several host institutions, among which Harvard University, where we organized an international conference on visual communication of revolts in spring 2014. Moreover, we work in close coordination with the scholars of the recently concluded research project “Tales of the Revolt: Memory, Oblivion and Identity in the Low Countries, 1566-1700” at Leiden University, the Åbo Akademi in Turku/Finland and the International Graduate School “Cultural Transfers and Cultural Identity: German-Russian Contacts in European Context” (Freiburg-Moscow). Furthermore we have established intensive contacts with numerous other universities in Europe (including Russia), the US and China. We presented and continue to present our research at high-ranking conferences (such as BSECS in Oxford in Jan. 2015), some of which organized by ourselves. Our proposed book on Writing rebellion in early modern diplomacy has been presented at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Berlin 2015 in a series of panels, we have managed to put together.


Monika Barget

Monika Barget studied history, history of art and theology in Augsburg (Germany) and Galway (Ireland). In 2013, she joined the international research group 'Early Modern Revolts' at Konstanz University as a doctoral student. Since October 2017, she has been project manager in the Letters 1916-1923 project at Maynooth University (Ireland). Her research interests include early modern constitutional history and political iconography.

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