Dr Tracey Sowerby, University of Oxford


In the early modern period literary texts – printed, manuscript, and oral – played a crucial part in diplomatic practice. Embassies were sites of cultural exchange and literature was a frequent tool in what we would now call cultural diplomacy. Professionally diplomats used a wide range of literary texts, texts which were critical in communicating and mediating cultural difference. Works of literature were sent as diplomatic gifts, while dramatic and poetic productions at court were invested with diplomatic meaning. As public and private figures diplomats moved texts across borders. They were writers, patrons and consumers of a diverse range of literature and were profoundly influenced by the literary cultures they encountered abroad. Although cultural artefacts, including literature, became increasingly important in diplomatic practice as protocol developed, the mechanisms and meaning of such cross-cultural diplomatic exchanges remain poorly understood, as does their impact on literary culture. This was a formative period in the development of diplomatic structures and assumptions in an ever more global context: the geographical scope of individual countries’ diplomatic activity expanded considerably and rulers increasingly sent longer-term embassies, often adopting the use of resident ambassadors, who provided continuous representation of their interests abroad. It is increasingly apparent that we can only truly understand both early modern diplomacy and Renaissance literary culture through broader and deeper investigation into the interlocking literary and diplomatic cultures of the global Renaissance. As the spoken and written word remains central to diplomatic practice, this network will produce research with implications for the understanding of cultural diplomacy today.

‘Textual Ambassadors’ will provide urgently needed definition to a burgeoning, but methodologically and theoretically underdeveloped field. Primarily focussing on developments within Europe and Russia c.1450-1720, it will also assess the impact of the expansion of diplomatic activity between Europe and Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Historians of diplomacy are increasingly adopting cultural approaches to what was once considered a bureaucratic or constitutional subject, but have left the role of literature relatively unexplored. Meanwhile, literary scholars are increasingly aware that diplomatic contacts and processes were important in shaping texts but largely rely on older historical works for context. Our ambition is to develop new methodological and theoretical approaches to the interrelationship between literature and diplomacy that will define and advance this emerging field. We will focus on three closely related areas: the impact of changes in the literary sphere on diplomatic culture; the role of texts in diplomatic practice, particularly those that operated as ‘textual ambassadors’; and the impact of changes in diplomatic practice on literary production. ‘Textual Ambassadors’ will draw together a team of international scholars from the USA, UK, and Europe, including leading figures in the field such as Timothy Hampton (UC Berkley) and John Watkins (University of Minnesota). Our commitment to innovative inter- and multidisciplinary approaches is reflected in the network’s composition: members have expertise in diplomatic history, literary criticism, book history, and cultural studies. Our activities will centre on two workshops and an international conference aimed at a) establishing the challenges of the field; b) further developing and refining our core research questions; c) exploring a range of interdisciplinary approaches; and d) setting the network’s research in broader context. Virtual discussion forums and reading groups will provide continuous dialogue and reflection among network members, while an open-access website will showcase the network’s research by hosting podcasts, blogs, and web exhibits of ‘textual ambassadors’.



Project website

RCUK Gateway to Research