Political Communication in the Medieval World, 800-1600 - Conference Report

The international conference “Political Communication in the Medieval World, 800-1600”, organized jointly by the ERC-funded research group “Communication and Empires: Chinese Empires in Comparative Perspective” (Leiden University) and Koninklijk Nederlands Institute Rome (KNIR) was held at KNIR on 27-29 May 2015. The meeting brought together scholars of Chinese and European political history and sought to address questions and methods in the study of political communication and the development of polities. The comparative framework was intended to interrogate the premises underlying Chinese and European historiographies of political culture and to advance a global perspective on long-term societal and political developments.

The discussions centred on the historical interpretation of relevant sources, the institutional parameters of political discourse, and the structures of networks that contributed to the strengthening or fragmentation of polities and political identities. The meeting was opened with a session on comparative methods and theory, chaired by Robert HYMES (Columbia University). Jeroen DUINDAM (Leiden University) provided conceptual distinctions between connected, entangled, and comparative approaches to political history. On the basis of a global history of dynasty, he highlighted global and comparative histories as distinct conceptual tools that are currently characterized by a paradoxical, yet interdependent relationship. Placing a particular focus on the mediation and communication of political authority in Chinese and European history, Hilde DE WEERDT (Leiden University) and John WATTS (University of Oxford) contributed a concrete model for the study of comparative political history, showing how a comparison of regional historiographies can modify and complement existing narratives of political development in medieval Europe and pre-modern China. In his keynote lecture ‘Language and Political Communication in France and England, c. 1100-1500: A Comparison’, Jean-Philippe GENET (University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne) outlined the dynamics of communication in the formation of states and bureaucracies in late medieval Europe. Linguistic diversity in late medieval Western Europe was critical in the rise of an official bureaucracy, with the emerging societal sphere of scribes and notaries distinguishing themselves by introducing the vernacular as a formal communicative tool, thus also establishing French as the lingua franca of political elites.

The second session explored the micro-foundations of political development with a focus on communication networks and the particular role of significant individuals. Juxtaposing the careers and violent deaths of Yue Fei (1143) and Thomas Beckett (1170), Bernard GOWERS (Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Oxford) showed how the dichotomies between military and scholarly virtues in Southern Song China and diverging notions of clericalism and knighthood in medieval Europe advanced competing conceptions of elite masculinities and thus enforced intra-elite conflicts. CHU Mingkin and Julius MORCHE (both Leiden University) added a comparative analysis of the printers’ networks of Chen Qi 陳起 (ca.1186- ca.1256) and Robert Estienne (1503-1559), highlighting in particular how distinct trajectories of political fragmentation and consolidation in late Song China and early modern Europe influenced the formulation, enforcement and circumvention of censorship. Beverly BOSSLER (University of California, Davis) discussed the role of letters as a medium of political communication during the Song by examining the correspondence between Yao Mian (1216-1262), a marginalized Southern Song bureaucrat, and local authorities. The analysis of Yao Mian’s epistolary network highlights the crucial role of letters in the creation and maintenance of social relationships that were essential to the political success of Song literati. Expanding the discussion to the interaction of unofficial and official channels of communication, CHEN Song (Bucknell University) assessed the role of unofficial reports provided by undisclosed informants to Southern Song court officials in creating political networks of trust that were often driven by personal agendas rather than administrative interests. Julian HASELDINE (University of Hull) suggested a new method for the reconstruction of social networks from sources of communication. The proposed focus on ‘transactions’ – social relations that are directly identifiable in historical sources – provides a framework to attain comparable data from different source types and thus to analyse network interactions independently of genre and language and across a variety of historical contexts. He illustrated this approach by exploring the applicability of twelfth-century ecclesiastical correspondence for the reconstruction of friendship networks in the medieval West.

The third session, chaired by Wim BLOCKMANS (Leiden University), linked the discussion of elite networks to questions of imperial governance, grouping contributions on daily practices of political communication, the formation of political imaginaries, the evolution of rhetorical patterns in epistolographic communication, and the role of communication in developing structures of governance. In two separate but purposefully juxtaposed papers on the posting of notices in early modern Rome (1420-1520) and Song China, Margaret MESERVE (Notre Dame University) and Patricia EBREY (University of Washington) discussed public notices as political pronouncements of governing elites, showing how similar practices of communication can have quite distinct social and political implications. Whereas the public posting of notices was practiced by both papal officials and their adversaries as a means to ritually enhance or undermine papal authority – a practice that continued well beyond the emergence of print – public pronouncements of provincial Song officials can be understood as a practical tool for maintaining order and consolidating territorial control as well as social hierarchies across the peripheries of the Song empire. Ari Daniel LEVINE (University of Georgia) further discussed the discursive construction of political entities through literary narratives, showing that the memorabilia literature of the Southern Song had a significant impact on the constitution and growth of political communities. Based on a discussion of the medieval rhetorical discipline of Ars dictaminis, Benoît GRÉVIN (CNRS Paris) evaluated the possibility of a Sino-European comparative study of rhetorical patterns in sources of political communication, arguing that a comparative analysis of structural and typological characteristics should focus on establishing clear criteria for the study of letters as rhetorical models. Christian LAMOUROUX (EHESS Paris) discussed the significance of accounting data as elements of political communication during the Southern Song. Analysing the communication over fiscal management between the Zonglingsuo 總領所 – regional agencies controlling public finances and the military – and central and regional authorities, he highlighted tensions between processes of centralization and decentralization as well as between civil and military officials.

The focus on political communication and empire was further deepened in a fourth session, chaired by Jean-Philippe GENET, which addressed in particular the role of informal networks in creating and maintaining formal channels of political influence. Through a detailed discussion of the efforts of Huang Zhen (1213-1281) to combat famines in Fuzhou at a time when the Song Empire was on the brink of collapse, LEE Sukhee (Rutgers University) examined how a local official utilized channels of personal and official communication to negotiate with both powerful families in his jurisdiction and senior government officials. Mark WHITTOW (University of Oxford) placed the bureaucratic structures of Song China in a comparative perspective to the governance of the late Byzantine Empire. Highlighting the potential of – for the context of late medieval Byzantium – rare but insightful sources of elite correspondence, he showed that the fading of the Byzantine state coincided with a breakdown of long-distance communication networks. The discussion consequently focused on the potential of global comparisons for highlighting context-specific political dynamics; as the Song-Byzantium comparison brought to light, the success of large territorial states in effectively linking their provinces to the political centre depended largely on their ability to communicate a ‘national’ narrative across the entirety of the territory they claimed.

The discussions revealed both the possibility and the necessity of exploring a typology of sources that comprises both Chinese and European materials. In both contexts, there are significant numbers of letters and other types of direct correspondence, unofficial reports and notices, poetry collections, and official documents such as taxation and notarial records that can be read as sources of political communication. Participants agreed, however, that the comparability of sources must not be held as a prerequisite for comparative historical analysis. On the contrary, comparisons that are based on a variety of source types can potentially be more illuminating, provided that they purport comparable forms of social interaction. Yet the meeting also showed that the analytical ambition of comparative history should reach beyond the identification of structural commonalities across different global contexts. As both context-specific and explicitly comparative contributions brought to light, the essential benefit of comparison lies in identifying those elements of political development that may explain the origins of long-term regional trajectories.

The conference also generated an impulse for more collaborative research: participants agreed to work towards a joint publication, featuring comparative studies and specialist contributions by scholars of Song and late medieval and early modern European history. The principal aim of the volume, tentatively titled Political Communication in Chinese and European History, 1100-1600, is to advance comparative research as an essential building block for a global perspective on political communication and the development of polities.

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