Early modern courts were the centres of political power of their time and the locus of the gestation of modern state institutions. Hence, they are a crucial site for historical research. In investigating the courtly power system, however, historiography has often solely focused on the person of the ruler and his (rarely her) immediate political decision-making, thus excluding the social practices rooted in interpersonal relationships, which shaped such individual decisions, as well as entire polities in their own right. With the aim of analysing those less visible relations, the German Historical Institute in Paris (GHIP) hosted a workshop on March 5th and 6th 2015 with the title “Power relations in court societies. Marriage, concubinage, friendship, kinship, and patronage in historical perspective.” The organizers, Pascal Firges and Regine Maritz, invited five doctoral students from three different countries to present their research subjects for comments and discussions.
Jeroen Duindam, Female Power in Dynastic History
The workshop was launched on Thursday with the keynote lecture delivered by Jeroen Duindam, professor for Early Modern History at the University of Leiden. Duindam specialises in comparative court history and is about to publish a book entitled “Dynasty. A Global History 1300-1800.” For Duindam, a theme as universal as dynastic power demands to be analysed with a global scope and he takes into account dynasties from all over Asia, Africa, and Europe. In Paris, he presented one aspect of his forthcoming work, namely the problem of “Female Power in Dynastic History“. Women in supreme positions of power were rare in Duindam’s sample of studies, and when they appeared, they were never the ‘natural’ or even the preferred ruler. Rather, they stepped in temporarily where male succession was rendered impossible. These women are often described as male, or are male-gendered which Duindam ascribed to a perceived contradiction between femininity and power.
Duindam presented the most interesting case of the Rain Queen Dynasty which ruled Lovedu in South Africa continuously for over 200 years after the first queen came to power due to the magical rain-making powers that were ascribed to her. Her reign paved the way for her female successors. The six Rain Queens that ruled between 1800 and 2005 were however perceived as male and in fact married women in order to integrate the elites of her territory. European missionaries and travellers often failed to see the matrilineal succession and female primogeniture because of their presupposition that only men could in fact rule. This is also where a bias of the written record about female power stems from: either women are made invisible as in the case mentioned or they are judged negatively, often the result of a narrative constructed after their actual reign.
Aside from rare examples like the Rain Queens, women holding supreme power remained the exception and more often than sitting on the throne they found themselves in influential positions around it. A prime example is the harem of the Persian court where women secured the royal succession as mothers and were important for the integration of the social elite by intermarriage; both of these functions served as a base for female power. Duindam noticed here that the European dynastic system actually must be seen as an exception in the sense that polygyny represents the rule in a global context.
The lecture of Duindam was commented by Chantal Grell, professor in modern history at the University of Versailles. She was interested in the challenge of comparing sources from different cultural contexts. The non-European cases are often transmitted to us through European intermediaries and thus come with an inherent bias. Duindam is nevertheless convinced that we cannot exclude such materials as they are often our only sources for non-Western societies, and in this he builds on anthropological approaches and methodologies. Grell was further interested in how Duindam integrated the findings of gender studies in his analysis of women at courts around the globe. As Duindam compiled in his book complex source material and several different case studies, he abstained from explicitly mentioning the conceptual approaches of Gender Studies. Nevertheless, they are implicitly present in his analysis, especially in those cases where women lose their femininity because of their powerful status but also when talking about the construction of masculinity through the image of the male ruler.
Pascal Firges, Extra-martial Alliances? Mistresses in French Court Politics (1660-1789)
The opening presentation to the workshop on Friday, took up the subject of gender, as Pascal Firges treated the role of mistresses in French court politics of the 17th and 18th century. Firges is the principal investigator the research group “Machtstrategien und interpersonale Beziehungen in dynastischen Zentren (1500–1800)“ at the GHIP, and in his talk he investigated the political and tactical relevance of concubinage relationships that formed among the members of the French court nobility. He challenged the idea that women served as objects of exchange in between families to secure loyalties. Rather, those loyalties were built through an exchange system of symbolic and material goods through men and women.
Even though one can safely state that the individuals involved in concubinage held more agency in the choice of the respective partner than they did in their choice of a spouse, one should not underestimate the influence that political interest and family strategy had on the extramarital relationship. Firges seeks to emphasise this crucial point with a structural analysis of concubinage and mistresses. In this intention, he proposed three hypothesis, exemplified by the case of Choiseul Stainville and his mistresses la Marquise de Contaut, la Princesse de Robecq, and la Comtesse de Brionne. Firstly he stated that the amant and the maîtresse generally belonged to the same status group in such a way, that a potential marriage would not mean a mesalliance. Secondly, the maîtresse and the amant belonged to the same faction. Thirdly, those kinds of relationships were controlled by the authorities of the respective families, who not only initiated or approved such liaisons, but might prohibit a relationship and forcefully separate two partners, which was a political act as well.
In the discussion, the suspicion that those relationships might have been only friendships or political unions was dismissed, since it seems clear that emotions and sexuality were also determining factors besides political reasoning. Some structural questions were touched on, for example, if the nobility built on concubinage as a strategy when constructing power relations, and if mistresses were an indispensable asset for a political career. Firges’ research project aims to answer these questions in due course.
Regine Maritz, Configurations of Gender at the Early Modern Court (1580-1630). The Use of Comparative Analysis
The second presentation of the day was held by Regine Maritz, doctoral candidate in the research group of Firges, who proceeded to engage with the theme of gender. She outlined two cases where changes to the familial and sexual systems at court were cause for an exceptional backlash at the crucial moment of succession from one ruler to the next. The first case took place at the court of Württemberg, where Johann Friedrich succeeded his father duke Friedrich I. in 1608, and immediately imprisoned all the women who were suspected of having had affairs with his father. The second case is located in Persia where Shah ‘Abbās was succeeded by his grandson Shah Safi in 1629. Safi executed forty women of the harem alongside a great number of courtiers and advisors that had surrounded ‘Abbās, thus violently restructuring the harem’s reproductive and successional functions.
The objective of Maritz’s project is to investigate those two very different and yet surprisingly similar cases in a comparative framework that combines Global and Gender History. Maritz argued that these historical disciplines can be fused advantageously, in order to reintegrate the subjective experience into a global narrative. Of course, such an endeavour presents significant challenges based on the differences of the respective source material, which Maritz was keen to discuss.
As a starting point of her analysis she chose the social and physical construction of space. The harem is often perceived as a guarded and impenetrable space, static over time. This conservative perception overlooks that Shah ‘Abbās changed the outline of the harem by moving it further into the centre of the court and affording it the new function of child-rearing, which greatly strengthened its political importance. A similiarly guarded space for women at court was the Frauenzimmer that we find in Württemberg. The communication and the mobility of these women were strictly controlled and limited in order to protect their sexual honour and to secure a pious lifestyle on their part. Much like in Persia, however, the segregation of women did not automatically entail their removal from the courtly information flow and thus from political activity. Maritz showed that, in fact, the Frauenzimmer in Stuttgart was closely integrated into the courtly network and exchange took place across its boundaries in a way that could not be entirely controlled by the authority of the duke.
Callie Wilkinson, The Risks and Rewards of Cross-Cultural Connections at Indian Princely Courts, c. 1793-1818
Global history was the perfect cue for the following presentation by Callie Wilkinson, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, who is concerned with the role of the Munshis, Indian intermediaries and translators representing East India Company Officials at Indian courts. She is interested in the ways these agents influenced the power dynamics of the colonial reality and participated in shaping the colonial system. At the same time, she recognizes the danger of underestimating the ways in which the colonial power limited the agency of the colonized.
Wilkinson characterised the relationship between officials and Munshis as one of mutual doubt but also of interdependency. The British residents distrusted their Indian employees out of fear of being misled and misrepresented by them at court. This fear was to an extent grounded in racial prejudice, but also in the awareness that the Munshis held extremely powerful positions as intermediaries who de facto conducted business and communicated with the court on behalf of their employer. In return, the Munshis profited from the patronage relation and often spent their whole career working for the East India Company. Nevertheless, the British officials were first and foremost committed to the Company and their loyalty toward their Munshi was secondary.
In the discussion round it was brought up that from a European viewpoint the Munshis must have been in a conflicted situation working on the one hand for the colonizer and on the other hand being integrated at the court and in the Indian society. In the Indian cultural context though, pragmatics were more important in this case and the Munshis faced little stigma because of their work. In fact, the Indian court tried to gain influence over the Munshis and therefore over the British residents through financial benefits.