Conspicuous Grandeur

The Courts of Europe: Politics, Patronage and Royalty 1400-1800

edited by A.G. Dickens
McGraw-Hill, 335, 342 illus pp., $24.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.