Dr Toby Osborne, Durham University


The early-modern period was foundational for modern diplomacy. Yet it was an age of religious turmoil and increasing globalization. How did diplomatic actors overcome barriers of language, religion, and culture to interact with each other? How did they use non-verbal languages (art, rituals, and space)? These are the central problems addressed by the network. They also provide a key to engagment with current practice in two senses. First, modern diplomacy faces seemingly comparable issues: challenges such as the ‘Arab Spring’, and even Wikileaks, have questioned a view that diplomacy is grounded on a shared understanding of international relations, especially on what constitutes a state and who controls state information. Accordingly, what can we learn today from early-modern diplomats who faced similar challenges? Equally, what can scholars learn from the experiences of contemporary diplomats dealing with ‘new’ states (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan) and with cross-cultural relations. Secondly, the interdisciplinary network will eschew narrowly political accounts of diplomacy. It will bring together established scholars and early-career researchers from history, modern languages, anthropology, art and architectural history, legal history, and international relations. It will also involve members of the heritage sector (e.g. English Heritage). Together, we will analyze the social and cultural processes that contribute to creating a global diplomatic community.

These aims and objectives will be examined through four themes:


Translating cultures

How did peoples of different political and religious persuasions find common diplomatic ground? Our period was of critical importance in the history of cross-cultural relations – issues of enormous sensitivity today – as Europeans frequently engaged with ‘others’: Muslim, African and Asian powers, as well as competing confessions following the Reformation. Who were best qualified to bridge cultural and confessional boundaries – merchants, artists, scientists, translators?


Symbolic languages

We will assess the power of diplomatic rituals and symbols – did shared understandings emerge of how diplomats should be treated and how they should interact? What happened when rituals were challenged? Could rituals re-define the very notion of sovereignty? The non-textual languages of diplomacy included space and material culture. How did diplomats move through palaces and charged political spaces? What access did they have to each other and to sovereigns? How were diplomatic gifts and the exchange of art interpreted?


The methodologies for studying diplomatic practice

How can researchers from different disciplines and countries learn from each other and develop a robust methodological framework for the area of study? Ideas will be shared through a dedicated website and the outcomes disseminated through an edited volume. We aim to ensure that the network leads to future collaborative work beyond the life of the AHRC funding.


Between the early-modern and modern worlds

To what extent are current problems comparable to, or different from, those faced by early-modern diplomatic actors? What can early-modern scholars learn from current practitioners of diplomacy and vice-versa? Also, how can we re-interpret material culture through the study of early-modern diplomacy?

The network’s potential beneficiaries will include the academic sector, the FCO and the heritage sector. First, the network will serve as a unique international hub for various research projects that are currently taking place around Europe, encompassing established and early-career researchers. The FCO and the academic network will gain mutual insights into diplomatic practice through understanding the early-modern ‘models’ and their contemporary counterparts. The heritage sector will benefit by fresh interpretations of assets such as palaces and other items of material culture, forming potentials for future collaboration.


Durham University project page

RCUK Gateway to Research