Court History

By Orr, Clarissa Campbell | History Today, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Court History


Orr, Clarissa Campbell, History Today


Clarissa Campbell Orr explains the recent revival in the history of courts, firm those of the Byzantine emperors to that of Hitler.

THERE HAS BEEN A RECENT REVIVAL OF INTEREST in studying the history of royal or princely courts which has found a focus in the Society for Court Studies, started in September 1995. The study of courts is taken in its widest sense, to consider the dynamics of power of any ruler, be it a Byzantine emperor or a twentieth-century dictator. In April 1998, Jeremy Noakes, in a paper to the Society's annual conference, explored the nature of `courtiers' in attendance on Hitler. He argued that modern elected politicians have their personal entourages, masters of spin, confidantes and mistresses, just as royal or princely courts in the past had their favourites, chief ministers, masters of ceremonies -- and mistresses. The formal structure of power and the means of its legitimisation may vary, but it is probably not too rash a generalisation to say that all power centres take on the character of courts.

The modern study of court history, then, is not a nostalgic look at the glamour of deposed or defunct royalty, but a study of the mechanisms of power, personnel, patronage and public image, which yields insights applicable across historical periods and different cultural contexts. Courts, whether official or unofficial, in power or in waiting, generate a charisma which needs investigation. Courts are where power elites can be manipulated, and where networks of influence bypass official channels. Courts can be dazzling centres of glamour and public magnificence, served by the most talented artists, architects, garden designers and musicians of their era, like Louis XIV's Versailles, or they can radiate tedium and worthy correctness, like George III's at Kew; but for those with ambition, or an hereditary assumption that they should exercise power, they could not be ignored. Nor should their history be.

When history began to become a profession in the nineteenth century, the concentration was on the growth of formal institutions or diplomatic relations; the eighteenth-century traditions of court history, which studied dynasties or wrote memoirs of statesmen and generals, spiced by occasional accounts of sexual scandal, were displaced by the story of the emergence of the nineteenth-century nation-state. Biographies of rulers, their consorts, mistresses and favourites, continued to be written, but they often belonged to a tradition of belles lettres and lacked rigorous contextual analysis.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, socialist and Marxist historians have changed the agenda, investigating elites through the focus of the class struggle; their sympathy toward the disenfranchised yielded rich returns in an understanding of labour history, political activism and popular culture. The subject matter of history has further diversified in the last thirty years, putting women, slaves, the colonial dispossessed, the deviant, criminal and marginalised, into the picture. In telling the story of the common man and woman in the mass democratic cultures of this century, historians have recovered whole areas of historical experience.

Like those who study courts, many of these historians emphasise the entire social and cultural context of these democratic movements: their style, symbolism and rituals, as well as their organisation and ideology. To argue for a fresh look at courts, therefore, is not a plea for elitism; court studies serve as a reminder that courts were the fulcrum of power, the point from which change was initiated and the point of pressure on which the responses of other groups was focused. Therefore, looking at the powerful and the powerless, the privileged and the disadvantaged, are essentially complementary enterprises. Neither group can really be adequately understood in isolation from the other, but perhaps it is now the elites and their courts which need rescuing, in E. …

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