It is not very long since court gossip seemed almost the only kind of history the general public wanted to read. One need only look into a secondhand bookshop to see all those faded lives of queens and royal mistresses, those interminable memoirs by Saint-Simon or Count Gramont, and those titillating accounts of Elizabeth I’s maids of honor or the affair of the Diamond Necklace. How dated they seem today, when so many historians have turned their backs upon these gilded parasites, preferring rather to explore the lives of the submerged and inarticulate! In a self-consciously democratic age, sophisticated historical writing is less concerned with courtiers than with peasants, workers, women, or slaves.

Yet many people retain a natural desire to read about the rich and fashionable. Biographies of kings and courtiers still crowd the lists; and even at this moment there must be a publisher somewhere who is wondering whether the time is not ripe for yet another life of Madame de Pompadour or a glossy study of the châteaux and mistresses of Francis I. Historians may prefer to study popular protest in the reign of Charles II, but publishers still believe that what the public wants is a book on Nell Gwynn.

It would be easy to mistake The Courts of Europe for yet another piece of bookmaking in this long-established genre. The volume is itself a luxury object, sumptuously produced and set out in such a way that the reader need not take in more than a page of text at a time without being diverted by some agreeably undemanding illustration. True, it contains a formidable bibliography, with suggestions for further reading in half a dozen languages. But, like the rather inadequate index, this part of the book is set in a typeface so small as to suggest that no one is actually expected to read it.

It would be a pity if such blandishments were to condemn the volume to languish on the coffee table, for it contains some first-rate essays and it raises some crucial historical issues. Twelve courts are discussed, starting with fifteenth-century Florence and Burgundy, continuing through Renaissance France and England, and ending with three eighteenth-century monarchs, Peter the Great, Maria Theresa, and Louis XV. En route there are studies of Philip IV of Spain, Charles I of England, Louis XIV of France, Pope Urban VIII, and the Austrian Habsburgs. The illustrations have for the most part been most skillfully wedded to the text and nearly every one of them is genuinely instructive. The fourteen contributors are all scholars whose views demand to be taken seriously and many, for example J.H. Elliott on Spain, R.J.W. Evans on the Habsburgs, and C.A.J. Armstrong on Burgundy, are leading authorities on their subjects. The only surprise is the editor himself, who has temporarily renounced the sixteenth-century Reformation to appear in a new role as medievalist. His introductory survey of medieval courts from Charlemagne to Matthias Corvinus is one of the most elegant chapters in the book; and his instructive accounts of Sicilian architecture, Bohemian castles, and Hungarian excavations suggest that Professor Dickens’s time spent traveling as Foreign Secretary of the British Academy has not been wasted.

What is it which has attracted so many serious historians to the study of courts and courtiers? To some extent the subject is forced upon them by the political realities of early modern Europe. In an age of personal monarchy the court was both the royal household and the center of government. It was at court that decisions were taken, careers advanced, and patronage distributed. Of course, there was an inexorable tendency for household and government to grow increasingly distinct from each other. The rise of separate ministries and bureaucracies inevitably created tension between the professional officials, who resented the interference of royal favorites, and the courtiers, who found themselves increasingly confined to the role of decorative hangers-on. These tensions existed at the Burgundian court in the fifteenth century and they can be found in almost every royal entourage thereafter. Even in the eighteenth century courtiers had not lost all their political influence; as Professor J.H. Shennan shows in his lively essay on Louis XV, the political influence of the king’s mistresses has been exaggerated, but it did exist.

Any historian of the early modern period must therefore accept that the court was the normal location of political power and decision making. (This is why some of the contributions to the present volume tend to degenerate at times into a narrative of the main political and dynastic maneuvers of the reign.) But the court was also important as a focus for ambition and thereby a means of binding both aristocrats and middle-class careerists more closely to the ruler. By the judicious distribution of offices, pensions, and grants of land, the monarch could retain the loyalty of potential dissidents. Skillfully deployed, as in fifteenth-century Burgundy or the France of Henry IV, such patronage became a crucial form of political cement. In the extreme case of the amorphous Habsburg monarchy, the court was the only source of political unity; without it, remarks Mr. Evans, “the Habsburg state would simply not have existed.” But when favors were bestowed capriciously, as, for example, by the early Stuart kings, the court could appear cliquish and isolated; instead of binding its subjects closer to the crown, it only served to build up resentment among the excluded.


This political role of the court has long been familiar to historians. But the essays in this book illuminate an associated theme to which rather less serious attention has been given. This is the political importance of ceremony and display. The courts of early modern Europe were deliberately intended to function as a public exhibition of the power, wealth, and taste of the ruling prince. The monarch’s life was a carefully orchestrated public spectacle, designed to mesmerize and impress. His daily routine tended to become a ritualized affair, with a stylized protocol governing every moment, from the presentation of the royal chamber pot on his first awakening to his ceremonial retiring to bed. Some rulers expected constant genuflection; nearly all seem to have eaten alone with the courtiers standing around watching. Philip IV of Spain was imprisoned in what Professor Elliott calls “an iron cage of ceremonial,” while Louis XIV’s whole public life is justly described by Professor Ragnhild Hatton as “a theatrical performance.” By the time of Louis XV the charade had become so artificial that after the king had been formally put to bed he would get up again and go off to join his mistress.

The life of the court thus revolved around special occasions on which the king’s magnificence was demonstrated: hunts and balls, royal entries and processions, weddings and funerals, tournaments and jousts. “In pompous ceremonies,” remarked a sixteenth-century Spaniard, “a secret of government doth much consist.” Although some rulers became increasingly desk-bound, many remained itinerant, like their medieval predecessors. Courtiers would be thrown into sudden confusion by the announcement that the king had decided to move on. The baggage (including all the furniture) had to be packed and new lodgings found. To move the court of Francis I, Mr. R.J. Knecht tells us, took 18,000 horses. In such ways the ruler would display himself to his subjects, find out what was going on in the outlying parts of his dominions, and incidentally bring financial ruin to those magnates upon whom he decided to billet himself.

The artistic magnificence which is so vividly commemorated in this book was also part of this deliberate policy of conspicuous grandeur. There were portrait painters to flatter and immortalize the ruler: Roger van der Weyden in Burgundy, Holbein and Van Dyck in England, Velázquez in Spain, Boucher in France. There were architects to design gorgeous palaces and hunting lodges to frame the court’s activities at Urbino, Prague, Versailles, or Vienna. There were craftsmen to make the crowns and the jewelry, the silverware and the gold plate, the furniture and the porcelain. In Burgundy the tapestries hanging in the audience chamber were changed twice daily.

Nowhere can the artistic consequences of self-glorification by ambitious rulers be more clearly seen than in Rome, where the Church’s patronage was ruthlessly employed to reward the family of the successful aspirant to the papal throne. Judith Hook in an admirable essay shows how the Barberini family exploited the long rule of their relative, Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). Four members of the family became cardinals and a fifth was made Prefect of Rome. Vast landholdings were acquired and all the resources of the baroque were exploited to celebrate the dynasty. These activities have been definitively explored in Francis Haskell’s indispensable Patrons and Painters (1963), and the essay in the present book draws upon Haskell to make the point:

Even Bernini’s great baldacchino in St. Peter’s, one of the most famous and influential pieces of Christian art in the world, is also a memorial to the Pope’s family: bees, the well-known Barberini emblem, crawl up the twisted columns and decorate the bronze leaves on the cornice, while the leaves on the column are not the traditional vine but the Barberini laurel, and a sun, another Barberini emblem, blazes from the capitals.

Two centuries earlier Lorenzo de’ Medici had been the center of an even more remarkable cultural efflorescence. Professor E.B. Fryde gives a graphic portrayal of this Mafia boss, who occupied no formal position in the political structure of Florence, but whose enormous power rested on his banking business, his corrupt profiteering, and his readiness to hire thugs to forward his family’s ends. Lorenzo’s direct art patronage was slight, but he was associated with the finest sculptors and painters of the Italian Renaissance. He played the viol, the lyre, and the lute. He was a fresh and original poet, and he was capable of competing against Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Perugino for the best design for a façade for Florence cathedral.


The history of court culture in these years thus embraces many of the greatest triumphs of European art: not just painting, architecture, and the decorative arts, but the music of Tallis and Byrd, the plays of Molière and Racine, the opera of Gluck and the national theater of Vienna. Learning was rewarded no less than the arts. The classical scholarship of Politian and Ficino was subsidized by the Medici; the astronomy of Tycho Brahe and Kepler was supported by the Emperor Rudolf II; and many of the best libraries in Europe were founded as royal institutions. It is not surprising that Professor Dickens is led to comment in the epilogue to this volume on the failure of the more democratic regimes of today to produce an artistic achievement comparable to that of these despotic rulers of the past.

Yet the historical significance of this court patronage presents more complex problems than the authors of these necessarily brief essays can hope fully to resolve. For royal patronage never created art; it only provided opportunities for artists who were already there. The relative bankruptcy of the visual arts today surely owes more to an autonomous shift in styles than to any lack of patronage, royal or otherwise. As John Constable remarked in 1836, “Whenever the arts have not been upheld by the good sense of their professors, patronage and honours, so far from checking their downward course, must inevitably accelerate it.”

In any case, the actual extent of court patronage in the past is far from clear. In many countries, the direct financial contribution of rulers was slight. Painting, architecture, and the theater were at least as heavily indebted to the support of the nobility and the wealthy urban bourgeoisie. In England the cultivated Charles I supported minor poets and playwrights, but he did nothing for real geniuses like Milton, Marvell, and the metaphysicals. In Burgundy and Florence it was the union of court and civic patronage which produced the triumphs of the fifteenth century; while in the republics of Venice and the United Provinces it proved possible to finance painters of the first order without kings and courtiers at all.

One is also left in doubt about how important for the maintenance of the ruler’s authority all this grandeur and display really was. Lorenzo de’ Medici did not obviously enhance his political power by surrounding himself with antique vases and classical manuscripts, any more than did Rudolf II by retreating to private discussions with his astronomers and alchemists. Great power often proved to be consistent with a relatively simple style of life; and not only in republics like Holland, where the Grand Pensionary John de Witt went on foot in the street like anyone else. Louis XI of France apparently wore shabby clothes, while many of the Habsburg emperors lived very frugally.

No one was more powerful than Peter the Great, yet, as Professor M.S. Anderson shows in his succinct account of his reign, the Russian autocrat scarcely had a court at all. He dressed plainly, showed no dynastic feeling, and, though fond of fireworks and water displays, built only modest palaces and avoided great show. Conversely, Charles I’s unrivaled art collection did not save him from the scaffold; indeed as Mr. Peter Thomas eloquently shows, the masques and allegories staged by Inigo Jones at the Stuart court were inward-looking and for private consumption only; they strengthened the collective identity of the court, but they made no attempt to convert those outside the charmed circle.

So could it be that all the energies devoted to these elaborate triumphs of allegory, pageantry, and royal symbolism were superfluous and that government would have gone on in much the same way without them? Were contemporaries wrong in their assumption that spectacle and display were essential for effective rule? The essays in this book do not answer the question, but they certainly raise it.

They also touch on another difficult problem, namely the influence of the court upon manners and morals. As the accepted social pinnacle, the ruler’s entourage had always helped to shape the mode of behavior acceptable among the social elite, just as it determined the way they dressed and spent their time. From the days of chivalry and courtly love, the influence had usually been in the direction of increasing refinement. Norbert Elias (who is surprisingly not mentioned in this book) long ago drew attention to the association between courts and the spread of forks, handkerchiefs, and a fastidious attitude to bodily functions. Yet, as Mr. Sydney Anglo shows in his essay on Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the sixteenth-century reputation of courtiers was not high. Courts were a by-word for hypocrisy, cynicism, and self-seeking. The humanist emphasis on studied behavior and elegant manners contrasted sharply with the frequent grossness of courtiers’ personal habits. Frederick II, the thirteenth-century emperor, may have had a passion for hygiene, but Versailles stank of urine and the courtiers of Charles II made an appalling impression upon the citizens of Oxford when they moved there in 1665:

though they were neat and gay in their apparel [wrote Anthony Wood] yet they were very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coalhouses, cellars.

The history of personal hygiene is yet to be written, but it is likely that the bourgeoisie will prove to be more important in the story than the court.

Certainly, courtly life had no consistent civilizing influence upon the manners of the rulers themselves. Some rebelled against their imprisonment in formal routine by breaking out in fits of wild release. Francis I rode disguised with his courtiers through the streets of Paris at night, throwing eggs at passersby. Philip IV went on nocturnal escapades through the slums of Madrid. All rulers, with the notable exception of Peter the Great, were obsessed by the pleasures of hunting, though there was not much refinement about the ritual slaughter of semi-caged animals into which many of these so-called hunts degenerated.

Always there was a contrast between formal elegance and private passion. Some rulers, like Charles I or Maria Theresa, were chaste in sexual matters, even puritanical. But the majority behaved like stud bulls; hence the endless mistresses and bastards from which few court annals are free. Louis XV was a king whose court was notable for its entrancing rococo elegance, but he was also a ruler who, dissatisfied even by his official mistresses, liked to creep out to his private brothel at Parcaux-Cerfs, where he kept healthy lower-class girls like Miss O’Murphy, “la Belle Morphise” immortalized by Boucher. Professor Shennan tells us that, after she had been married off, Louise O’Murphy produced a son who became a famous general. He might have added that, by one of history’s most curious ironies, it was this same son who commanded the troops at the execution of Louis XVI. There can seldom have been a more appropriate nemesis.

This Issue

January 26, 1978