Norbert Elias and his critics

by Jonas Bechtold

Undoubtedly, the “Court Society” of the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990) has been one of the most influential and discussed books for early modern historiography in the twentieth century. Therefore, his impact on more than fifty years of historical research cannot be underestimated. But in the course of the examination and analysis of Elias’ theories, historians have both adapted and deconstructed it. Especially his idea of a “Royal Mechanism” – playing off the traditional nobility against a raising bourgeoisie and thus controlling both – has found its critics. However, students dealing with the early modern court should certainly study Elias’ theory of the functioning of courtly societies and also be aware of the following studies:

An excellent starting point for studying the criticism of Elias’ work is Jeroen Duindam’s work on “Myths of Power. Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court” (reviewed here by Martin Dinges) in 1995. In his detailed analysis, Duindam uncovers logical inconsistencies in Elias’ theory of the court and contradicts Elias by confronting the “domestication of nobility” with new research results on nobles’ power and influence at European courts.

Another example of deconstructing Elias, an article of German scholar Leonhard Horowski should be mentioned here. Based on Duindam’s work and on his own prosopographical research, Horowski succeeds to show in terms of content and method why Elias should not be quoted uncritically. His article is freely accessible and can be downloaded on perspectivia.net. Also Horowski’s outstanding prosopographical analysis provides an elaborate discussion of Elias’ work.

Shortly after Norbert Elias had presented the ideas of the “Court Society” at Frankfurt University in 1933, he was forced to flee abroad from the restrictions and the terror of the Nazi regime and the “Court Society” has therefore not been published before 1969. In 2003, a colloquium took place on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of Elias’ theory. The papers of this conference were published by Claudia Opitz in “Höfische Gesellschaft und Zivilisationsprozess. Norbert Elias’ Werk in kulturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive” (reviewed here by Jan Hirschbiegel) and present a wide approach to the sociologist’s life and work. The articles prove that – even though many of Elias’ central ideas have been critically reviewed – the topicality of Elias’ method and its value for academic research in history and other fields.


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