Publication Date

May 1, 2011


Political, Research Methods

The principle ofquod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (“what touches all must be approved by all”), which underpinned much of early modern politics, meant that princes could not rule by fiat. They continually had to consult their subjects, who claimed many liberties and privileges, especially in regard to taxation. The history of representation examines the who, where, when, and how of such consultations. It allows us to examine how people addressed important issues over long periods of time, and it offers us many opportunities to investigate the pluralistic nature of power and to study early modern political experience.

The main challenge facing both researchers and teachers is the tendency of scholars to seek the origins of modern representative institutions in the medieval and early modern period. The quest for origins has led to a teleological view and to anachronisms, hindering our understanding of representation, political speech, and deliberations in the past. It also reinforces the conventional view that, in England, parliament reigned supreme and led to the establishment of democracy, whereas on the continent national parliaments gradually disappeared, and “absolutism” took hold. This narrative of political development remains ingrained in most textbook discussions of European politics and historians’ thinking on the subject. The dominance of the conventional view also makes it seem that the field has few opportunities left for original research.

Such perspectives partially explain why recent research on representation has remained under most historians’ radar.1 This essay highlights two developments of particular interest to historians. First, specialists now recognize that a representative assembly did not need to incorporate the entire nation (that is, parliaments,états généraux,cortes, and the like) to have a voice in the political process. Local or national assemblies of a single order also allowed people to participate in politics. Second, the reexamination of parliamentary speech provides new insights into the mentalities of rulers and ruled by analyzing not only what they said but how they said it. Both trends move us toward a more accurate understanding of how early modern Europeans experienced consultation and power.

By expanding our notion of representation, scholars have identified many new venues for consultation from village to provincial assemblies. The scrutiny of customary laws in France, for instance, provided a forum for political dialogue between royal representatives and the people—from nobles to commoners—while conflicts over statuto (constitutions) in the Roman countryside provided village assemblies with an opportunity to challenge the seigniorial regime.2 The practice of consultation and assembly then cut across classes, social levels, and places. It allowed people to engage in political activity and to flex, even minimally, political power to solve problems. Closer scrutiny of village and provincial records will also help us to recover many previously unknown voices, and listening to those voices should help us to determine how local needs influenced the deliberative process of assemblies. In the process, we will learn about society, not just government, from studying representation.

The identification of so many lesser-known bodies also shows that consultations between princes and their subjects were more frequent than previously thought. The Castilian Assembly of the Clergy, for example, operated for nearly 300 years, and it met as frequently as the cortes in the 1500s and 1600s. Institutions, such as the assembly, often represented only a single estate and had a limited mandate (such as the apportionment and collection of clerical taxation), but bringing them into the historical narrative demonstrates that the crown was just one political actor among many and further evinces the pluralistic nature of power. That is, kingdoms or states consisted of multiple autonomous political organizations, and the keystone of a prince’s policies was to seek consensus with those organizations for the common good.

Scholarly recognition of such venues for consultation also moves us beyond modern definitions of representation and sovereignty that have limited the study of representation to national bodies and obscures early modern Europeans’ more ambiguous notions of representation. National parliaments clearly played a central role in passing laws and appropriating taxation, but their absence did not mean royal despotism. Through legal proceedings or other assemblies, people maintained a voice in the political process.3 Expanding our notions of representation and consultation beyond teleological assumptions of state formation will allow us to construct a more satisfactory narrative on politics and representation: one that does not simplify complex historical developments to fit them into the state-building paradigm or for that matter the absolutist schemata of early modern political theorists.

Much of this research focuses on the organization and function of the various councils, parliaments, estates, and assemblies. Were they deliberative or advisory bodies? How often did they meet? What did they do when they met? How representative were they? How were deputies elected? Who did the deputies represent? Answers to such questions are crucial for understanding the political life of early modern Europeans. Most researchers examining lesser-known representative bodies answer these questions by using approaches developed by earlier parliamentary and political historians (prosopographical studies, the examination of institutional developments, or narrow administrative histories, for instance). This nuts-and-bolts work is fundamental to understand how these bodies functioned and their composition, but the larger goal for political historians needs to be incorporating country-specific studies into the larger narrative of early modern politics. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to discern how people experienced power and consultation over time.

The other important development in the field is renewed interest in political speech and the symbolic practices of representative institutions. Most consultation—whether in a national parliament or an assembly of an estate—began and ended with speeches. Parliamentary speeches have long been seen as empty rhetoric that distracted from the real business of assemblies. Scholars have recently begun to reexamine those speeches—both their text and the locations of their delivery—through an interdisciplinary approach. By using methods from cultural history and rhetorical studies to interpret parliamentary speeches, scholars have begun to recognize speaking as a political act in itself and consequently to attribute a greater importance to parliamentary speeches than previously. The speeches—whether of kings to parliaments or within parliaments—offer new insights into political culture and debates. They allow us to examine how people used political concepts in actual speaking situations and how speeches reinforced the social order and the legitimacy of representative institutions. The speeches also make clear that assemblies were not simply vehicles for royal pronouncements. There was real exchange and deliberation even though it took place within a framework geared toward reaching a consensus. The ceremonial setting of speeches with baldachins, stages, and seating arrangements also gave a visual—in addition to the verbal—component to the social and hierarchical order that the convening of assemblies upheld. Many questions remain to be answered about the nature of political speech, but this new research makes clear that political speech and deliberation were more vibrant and meaningful than once thought.4

These developments in the history of representation open up new opportunities for comparative studies. Typological studies on the composition, structure, and prerogatives of representative bodies are a hallmark of the field,5 and the expansion in the number of venues for consultation provides new opportunities to compare and to contrast representation and political practice across Europe. Renewed interest in parliamentary speech also makes possible new types of comparisons, especially in regard to political rhetoric and its development as well as the use of political concepts over time. A better understanding of these changes might help us to identify when certain political concepts entered parliamentary debates and thereby determine the relationship of political theory to political practice.

A further reason to undertake comparative studies is that princes and representatives considered the actions and rhetoric of representative bodies in other countries. For instance, assemblies of the clergy within the Spanish monarchy exchanged negotiating strategies for clerical taxation. The Spanish crown meanwhile gathered information in the 1550s on how the French king compelled his clergy to contribute more to the royal coffers. Much later, in the 18th century, Swedish deputies to the Riksdag made comparisons to other political systems in their speeches. The active comparison to practices in different countries and the periodic exchanges between representative bodies demonstrate that political history must be comparative not simply to construct paradigms of state formation but to understand how early modern states and institutions operated and how they understood the organization and structure of power.

A reassessment of representation is crucial to reinvigorate the study of politics in early modern Europe. Instructors and researchers need to move beyond the still influential state-building model and entrenched views about the decline of representative institutions. Instead we need to recognize that political life was more vibrant than earlier scholars realized and that governance relied on equilibrium between particular interests and national interests, and various types of associations articulated and coordinated those particular interests. These associations were undemocratic by modern standards, often limited to elite groups who pursued self-serving interests, but they did serve to safeguard the liberties and privileges of various estates. The articulation of such interests is at the heart of political speech, and such speech held a central place in the deliberative process. The study of representation then allows us to achieve a better understanding of the relationship between rulers and ruled and the negotiations and accommodations at the center of political life in the early modern period.


1. For several insightful essays on the subject, see Maija Jansson, ed., Realities of Representation: State Building in Early Modern Europe and European America (New York, 2007).

2. Kathleen A. Parrow, “Provincial Estates and the Revision of Customary Law in Medieval and Early Modern France: Evidence from the Procès-verbal Narratives,” Parliaments, Estates and Representation 21 (2001), 57–71; Caroline Castiglione,Patrons and Adversaries: Nobles and Villagers in Italian Politics, 1640–1760 (Oxford, 2005).

3. John Rogister, “Some New Directions in the Historiography of State Assemblies and Parliaments in Early and Late Modern Europe,” Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 16 (1996), 1–16.

4. Pasi Ihalainen and Kari Palonen, “Parliamentary Sources in the Comparative Study of Conceptual History: Methodological Aspects and Illustrations of a Research Proposal,” Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 29 (2009), 17–34 and Jörg Feuchter and Johannes Helmrath, “Oratory and Representation: The Rhetorical Culture of Political Assemblies, 1300–1600,” Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 29 (2009), 53–66.

5. For a recent study, see Michael A. R. Graves,The Parliaments of Early Modern Europe (London, 2001).

Sean T. Perrone teaches history at Saint Anselm College (Manchester, New Hampshire). His recent publications include Charles V and the Castilian Assembly of the Clergy: Negotiations for the Ecclesiastical Subsidy (2008). He thanks M. Jansson, P. Pajakowski, and M. Vester for their feedback on earlier versions of this essay.

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