The New Diplomatic History: Old Debate, New Discussions
North American Conference on British Studies 2
Diplomatic history would appear to be one of the true dinosaurs of academic history: driven (along with the ‘great men’ it focused on) from its ascendancy over the field by the 1960s social history and 1970s linguistic turns, and then, in the face of persistent theory-aversion and recalcitrance to change, confined to the margins of the profession ever since. By 2008, however, the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies had dedicated an entire issue to the rise of a new subfield: the New Diplomatic History. In it, John Watkins, Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, detailed the new movement that sought to breathe new life into older interpretations of diplomacy. No longer, he argued, should diplomacy be regarded as a purely political institution that ran its teleological course from the Italian Renaissance forward. Rather, a methodologically-innovative corps of “new diplomatic” historians have instead begun to explore early modern diplomacy as a culturally-inflected activity based as much in interpersonal networks, affective bonds, and the traffic in ideas, objects and symbols as in the counsels of state. They have emphasized, for example, that relations between early modern polities were sustained as much by gift-giving as by treaty-making, and indeed that the separation of the two is as artificial as it is unhelpful. Other scholars have added that diplomacy did not develop as a grandiose scheme planned by Europeans alone, but rather evolved according to encounters with non-European cultures in fluid rather than linear ways.
This panel seeks to examine the fruits of new research conducted in the wake of the new diplomatic history, and to suggest avenues in which the movement can continue to develop. Has the idea of freeing diplomacy from its European-centered, narrowly political, and ambassadorial framework fueled new interest in the field of diplomatic history? What form has this research taken? What does the new diplomatic history have to offer the field of history at large, and (possibly) other disciplines? Denice Fett (University of North Florida) will investigate the formal and informal networks of informants who provided the Elizabethan English government with the bevy of news, gossip, and rumors through which the government sifted (and upon which it depended) in its attempts to craft a coherent and successful foreign policy. Erik Thomson (University of Manitoba) will address the official and unofficial role merchants and bankers assumed in state finance and arms dealing in early modern Europe, stressing that their wide access to resources and prudent behavior eclipsed that of formal diplomats and enabled the blend of state structure and economic development. Finally, Erica Heinsen-Roach (University of South Florida at St. Petersburg) will discuss how North African society forced Europeans to adjust their norms of diplomacy to Maghrebian customs. The willingness of Europeans to accommodate to “the other” significantly reshaped diplomacy in the western Mediterranean and invites us to rethink the relationship between empire, diplomacy, and global relations. The panel will be chaired by Professor Watkins himself, with a comment provided by Daniel Riches (University of Alabama).