Court and Courtiers

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COURT AND COURTIERS. The royal and princely courts of early modern Europe were important centers of culture, politics, and patronage. New codes of conduct were developed at and for the court. The court was often criticized by contemporaries as a place where corruption, moral depravity, and political intrigues as well as waste, ostentation, and luxury reigned supreme. Nevertheless, court culture, which was centered on the cult of majesty, had an enormous impact on elite culture in early modern Europe.


Italy was the first European country in which life at court was systematically analyzed and where a whole series of books of advice for the future courtier was published. The work that laid the foundation for this sort of literature and thereby created a new literary genre was Baldassare Castiglione's (14781529) Il Cortegiano, a dialogue written between 1513 and 1524 and published in 1528. Castiglione's courtier appears as a true uomo universale, a perfect human being, learned, civilized, elegant, well dressed, courageous, and a good fighter both in battle and in duels. The courtier has to be a man of many parts, at home in war as well as in peace, a man who will cut a good figure in an elegant conversation or when courting a lady. But it is impossible to reduce the courtier to any of his many roles; the feature that really defines him is none of his individual accomplishments but grazia ('grace'). An essential part of the "grace" or charm that marks the true courtier is that everything he does should appear natural and effortless. For this ease and naturalness in appearance and behavior, Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura (a certain nonchalance combining self-confidence with understatement and also spontaneity); this catchword was to become famous, and it remained a key term in later tracts on the courtier. It was an ideal that deeply influenced the way nobles in general, even outside the confines of the court, tried to appear to society.

Later tracts on the court were more skeptical with regard to the role of the courtier. The political style cultivated by princes who saw themselves as absolute rulers left little room for the courtier to act as the prince's instructor or as his partner in conversation; he was now seen rather as a potential favorite who had to win the ruler's favor by all means fair or foul and was advised to conceal his real thoughts behind an impenetrable facade consisting of perfect manners and absolute self-control, as in the writings of the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracían (16011658). French tracts on the court, such as Nicolas Faret's L'honnête homme, ou l'art de plaire à la cour (1630), however, were more pragmatic. Faret's honnête homme seeks a compromise between virtue and the need to please the prince and other courtiers, between his own personality and social constraints. In the following decades, the ideal of the honnête homme, refined in the salons of Paris and by the noble Frondeurs whose political ambitions had been shipwrecked in the early 1650s, lost its connection with the court. The honnête homme, who had been a courtier seeking social advancement and a career in Faret's treatise, increasingly became a man of honor, though not necessarily of high morals in any conventional sense, cultivating his own personality in polite conversation in order to drive away the boredom that was the price he had to pay for the life of leisure that was such an essential precondition for his cultural achievements. Thus, in France as in Italy, but much later, a particular style of conduct that had been developed for the court at the court became a more general and extremely influential model of behavior in upper-class society. At times its aesthetic or ethical implications would make it almost incompatible with the real life of a courtier.


In the early modern period and, in particular, in the seventeenth century, the court was at the center of a process that redefined the notion of honor in many continental monarchies. The honor and status of a nobleman no longer depended primarily on the informal respect of his equals or his betters, as it had still done in the early sixteenth century, but rather on the formal recognition of his rank and title by the prince and his legal agents. No early modern ruler could overturn the existing social hierarchy, but sovereign rulers increasingly claimed the authority to define status groups within this hierarchy and to endorse or reject claims of privileged positions in the existing system. And the court, more than anywhere else, was the place where these claims of status were assessed. At the same time the political culture of the early modern court offered a pronounced contrast with important political and administrative developments of the same period, which are often seen as specifically modern. The tendency to transform informal political and social relationships based on mutual trust into fixed legal structures based on contracts and laws and the development of more bureaucratic administrative institutionsso important for the development of the state in the early modern periodnever really affected the rules of political life at court. Here conflicts were resolved in a much more informal way than in the courts of law, the conciliar bodies of the central administration, or the assemblies of Estates. In fact, one of the most important features of the court's political culture was the lack of formalized legal proceduresapart, of course, from the court ceremonial. The relationship between prince and courtier was never a contractual one: the courtier could not confront his lord with legal claims if he wished to be rewarded for his loyalty. On the other hand, he did not, qua courtier, receive orders, but was expected to adapt all his actions to the wishes of the prince without any formal command. When he received gifts and grants, these were a reward not for a specific service but for his loyalty and friendship.

Certainly there were voices even at the time warning noblemen against subjecting themselves to the servitude of life at court. Against such arguments, defenders of the court, such as the Italian writer Matteo Peregrini (15951652) in his Difesa del savio in corte (1634; Defense of the wise man at court), replied that courtiers, by their nature, were the ruler's friends, not his servants, because they benefited from their position at court and received grants and gifts as a reward for their loyalty. A mere slave or unfree servant could never expect any reward at all. Gifts and grants were indeed extremely important for giving court society the coherence that other forms of social interaction, such as conversation and sociability, could no longer provide in the later seventeenth century, when the idea that courtiers could be the ruler's instructors had lost all credibility. The distribution of grants at court, which was the foremost center of patronage in the monarchical state, was therefore never exclusively a means to satisfy the desire of courtiers for material rewards. It was also a means of enhancing the status of the recipient and of creating a social bond between the ruler and the nobles attending his court.


In the first half of the sixteenth century, Italian courts such as that of the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua, and the papal court in Rome had set standards of magnificence and artistic patronage that rulers outside the peninsula, such as Francis I (ruled 15151547) of France, eagerly tried to emulate. In the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the Spanish court was probably the most important among the royal courts of Europe. It was dominated by a strict ceremonial, introduced by Charles I (ruled 15161556; ruled 15191556 as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), that made the king almost inaccessiblea clear contrast to the more easygoing way of the French courtand probably reached its greatest splendor under Philip III (ruled 15981621) and Philip IV (ruled 16211665) when Spain's political hegemony in Europe was already under attack and when the monarchy was often on the brink of insolvency. However, foreign visitors were deeply impressed by the works of art, the ceremonial, and the aura of dignity and royal authority that were the hallmark of the Spanish court.

In the greatest Protestant monarchy of the time, in England, the political and cultural impact of the court both under the later Tudors and under the Stuarts was limited, not least by financial problems. Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603), who was celebrated by her courtiers as the Virgin Queen, at once chaste and erotically attractive, successfully exploited the revival of chivalry in the late sixteenth century to create a culture of loyalty to the monarchy and of commitment to the Protestant faith, and had her nobles pay for many festivals and courtly pageants out of their own pockets. She prudently refrained from any extensive building activities. Her successors James I (ruled 16031625) and even more so Charles I (ruled 16251649) were more ambitious in their artistic patronage and wanted to emulate the cultural achievements of late Renaissance Italy and Spain. Their controversial policies and the religious divisions of the age, however, made it difficult to contain faction fights at court and to fully integrate the provincial elites into the political and cultural system of the courtsomething Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) was to achieve with great success in France after 1660. After the Restoration of the monarchy in England (1660), the court had to compete with Parliament as the center of politics. The court's cultural milieu offered a clear contrast to the discipline and self-restraint preached by strictly Protestant clergymen whose idealsafter the regicide of 1649were now marked by the taint of republicanism. Sexual libertinage and a tendency for violent excesses, which could manifest themselves in duels as much as in attacks on social inferiors, therefore found a fertile breeding ground in the cosmopolitan and anti-Puritan culture of the Restoration court.

Whereas the English court was to some extent replaced by Parliament as the real center of political power in the eighteenth century, the imperial court in Vienna saw its apogee in the decades after the successful defense of the Habsburg capital against the Ottoman Empire in 1683. Great noblemen from the entire monarchy now moved to the capital, where they built palatial residences. The emperors themselves remained more parsimonious in their building activities and relied less on extensive and costly artistic patronage than on the unrivaled dignity of their position as Europe's highest-ranking monarchs and on the cultural and aesthetic power of the Counter-Reformation church to legitimize their claim to authority. Not until the mid-eighteenth century did the palace of Schönbrunn just outside Vienna become the dynasty's principal residence, replacing at least in summer the rather old-fashioned and unassuming Hofburg in the heart of the capital. Even then the palace did not attain the gigantic dimensions Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (16561723), the great baroque architect, had once dreamt of in 1690, when he had hopes of surpassing Versailles. In fact, in the Holy Roman Empire of the eighteenth century, it was often lesser princes, who could not hope to create a powerful army, who continued to subscribe to the ideals of the baroque court culture and spent most of their income on building new palaces and maintaining oversized courts, a habit that was now increasingly criticized by enlightened intellectuals.


Such criticism was much more muted in the seventeenth century when Versailles, the palace built by Louis XIV after 1660 near Paris to house his court, became for a time the almost unrivaled center of European court culture. Versailles has become a byword for the splendor of the baroque monarchy and also for its alleged ability to manipulate and tame the ancient nobility. The palace certainly differed from earlier royal residences in providing accommodation not just for the king's immediate household, but also for most of the more important government departments and for many high-ranking noblemen, including many who did not hold any office. Moreover, the art produced at and for the court, the courtiers' manners and style of conduct, the fashions adopted by court society, and the language spoken at court all set cultural standards to which provincial society more or less eagerly tried to conform in the late seventeenth century. In this sense Louis XIV's court certainly had a much greater impact on society than that of any of his predecessors despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the king no longer went on progress through the provincesunless he paid a visit to his troops in wartime. On the other hand, one should not overestimate the role of the court as an instrument of absolutism, as many older accounts have done. Louis XIV allegedly kept his nobles busy at court by an unbroken series of festivals and entertainments and by having them concentrate all their energies on receiving empty symbols of rank and precedence from the monarch's hand. While the members of the ancient nobility spent their time on such inane pursuits, men from families of far lesser status occupied the positions of power as secretaries of state, as officeholders, and as judges. However, this image, which rests to a considerable extent on the account given by Louis de Rouvroy, the duke of Saint-Simon (16751755), in his multivolume memoirs, completed long after the king's death, is at least partly misleading. It is indeed true that great nobles who in the past had often resided for long periods of time in the provinces now increasingly moved to the court. Those who did not show that they were eager to serve the king in person could hardly hope for his favor. However, far from being generally idle and without influence, many courtiers pursued military careers. In fact, employment in the royal household or in the guard units attached to it was often an important, if not indispensable, steppingstone for such a career.

Versailles is associated with the splendid festivals and pageants celebrating Louis XIV as the Sun King. However, the splendor of court life was gradually toned down at the very time when the royal household settled permanently in Versailles in 1682. Great festivals and entertainments became rarer and less exuberant, and many observers now felt that life at court was rather boring. In addition, whereas the sculptures and paintings created for Versailles in the early years in the 1660s and 1670s had used the language of ancient mythology and celebrated the king as Apollo or Helios, the later decor concentrated directly on his political achievements. With the ambiguity of the mythological language gone, the cult of the monarch became much less enigmatic and more blunt in its message, but also easier to attack by critics of the regime. Court culture was therefore arguably already in decline when the king died in 1715 and never entirely recovered even when the ministers of Louis XV (ruled 17151774) moved the royal residence back to Versailles after the end of the regency in 1722. Louis XV and his successor Louis XVI (ruled 17741792) remained ill at ease in the enormous palace and came to resent the constraints imposed on them by the elaborate court ceremonial, whereas the aristocracy preferred to live in Paris, often paying only short visits to the court unless they had charges in the royal household. Nevertheless, the court and its culture were to survive in Versailles until the Revolution.

See also Advice and Etiquette Books ; Aristocracy and Gentry ; Castiglione, Baldassare ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Louis XIV (France) ; Monarchy ; Patronage ; Philip III (Spain) ; Philip IV (Spain) ; Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy ; Versailles ; Vienna .


Primary Sources

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Sir Thomas Hoby. Edited by J. H. Whitfield. London, 1975. Modern edition of a sixteenth-century translation.

Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de. Mémoires. Edited by Yves Coirault. 8 vols. Paris, 19831988. The standard critical edition. See also the abridged English edition: Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de. Memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency. Translated by Bayle St. John. 3 vols. London, 1901.

Secondary Sources

Adamson, John, ed. The Princely Courts of Europe: Ritual, Politics and Culture under the Ancien Régime 15001750. London, 1999. Richly illustrated survey. The introduction by Adamson roundly rejects the idea of the court as the prison of a deracinated nobility.

Asch, Ronald G., and Adolf M. Birke, eds. Princes, Patronage and the Nobility: The Court at the Beginning of the Modern Age c. 14501650. Oxford, 1991. A collection of essays that concentrates on politics and social life at court, less on culture and the arts.

Brown, Jonathan, and John H. Elliott. A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV. New Haven and London, 1980. One of the best studies of the Spanish court and its culture by an outstanding art historian and one of the foremost experts on the politics of Spain's golden age.

Burke, Peter. The Fabrication of Louis XIV. New Haven and London, 1992. Brief survey of the changing cult of majesty at Versailles and its crisis. Less solid, but much more easily accessible than Sabatier's work.

. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Traces the influence Castiglione's work had on theories of civility across Europe.

Elias, Norbert. The Court Society. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, 1983. Originally published in German in the late 1960s, this important sociological study relies too much on Saint-Simon. Nevertheless, most modern research on the political function of the early modern court is indebted to Elias to a greater or lesser extent.

Hinz, Manfred. Rhetorische Strategien des Hofmannes. Studien zu den italienischen Hofmannstraktaten des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart, 1992. Outstanding work on the Italian sixtenth- and seventeenth-century treatises about life and politics at court. Probably the best work available in any language on this topic.

Klingensmith, Samuel John. The Utility of Splendor: Ceremony, Social Life and Architecture at the Court of Bavaria, 16001800. Chicago, 1993. Good on the political function of architecture.

Sabatier, Gérard. Versailles ou la figure du roi. Paris, 1999. The definitive analysis of the political significance of art and architecture at the French court.

Starkey, David, ed. The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War. London, 1987. Essential reading for the history of the English court.

Ronald G. Asch