Women and Diplomatic Practice in Early Modernity
Current understandings regarding the role of women in early modern diplomacy have come mainly from two perspectives. A number of important studies have brought to the forefront the substantial diplomatic achievement of female rulers, such as Elizabeth I (C. Levin, S. Duran), Catherine de Medicis (D. Crouzet), and Amalia Elisabeth of Hesse-Cassel (T. Helfferich), to name just a few. Women figure prevalently in studies on dynastic marriages that marked turning points in European politics, most notably the Habsburg and Bourbon unions of 1615 (M. McGowan) and 1659 (A. Zanger). These studies established substantial female agency, dismantling the notion that women were pawns in the politics of family and state or that early modern diplomacy was a male-dominated activity. As scholars continue to heed John Watkins’s call for a new diplomatic history in his seminal essay published in The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Historyin 2008, a systematic interrogation of women’s roles in early modern diplomatic practice remains essential. For in spite of major advances in the field, diplomatic history still produces overwhelmingly masculinized narratives.
The three papers in this panel are ideally conceived to investigate the activities of women outside high profile queens, regents, or royal brides. Catherine Medici-Thiemann discusses Irish noblewomen who played a prominent diplomatic role during the English reconquest of Ireland in the later part of the sixteenth century. These women employed an array of strategies that included seeking alliances outside Ireland, engaging in letter-writing, and even fomenting rebellions against the English. While Medici-Thiemann’s paper points to the role of contingency in prompting the participation of non-political actors in diplomatic events, Vanessa de Cruz Medina’s paper highlights the role of women in standard diplomatic practices. Tuscan and Modenese envoys to the Spanish Habsburg court received specific instructions about gift-giving, which mainly focused on the Habsburg women who resided in the convent of the Descalzas Reales. While the nature of the gifts had a strong religious component, the male diplomats targeted the women as potential power-brokers as well, and availed themselves of the help and support of Italian women in effecting the gift exchange. The confluence of religion and politics in an international context also comes to the forefront in the last paper of the panel. Anne J. Cruz discusses the case of Luisa de Carvajal, a formidable Spanish noblewoman, whose evangelizing mission to England in the early seventeenth century created a number of difficulties for the Spanish ambassadors. While Carvajal became more of a hindrance than a facilitator of the ambassadors’ mission, her case highlights the type of agency that women with moral and social authority could achieve, given the circumstances.
Together, these diverse cases paint a broader view of the diplomatic culture of early modern Europe. The fact that they took place across different courts and within different political contexts, yet within a relatively close chronological range (1570s-1610s), encourages meaningful comparisons. Clearly, women were an integral part of the system and played a no less significant role in early modern diplomacy than officially-appointed men.