Translating Cultures: The Languages of Diplomacy between the Early-Modern and Modern Worlds

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: History


The early-modern period was foundational for modern diplomacy. Yet it was an age of religious turmoil and increasing globalization. How did diplomatic actors overcome barriers of language, religion, and culture to interact with each other? How did they use non-verbal languages (art, rituals, and space)? These are the central problems addressed by the network. They also provide a key to engagment with current practice in two senses. First, modern diplomacy faces seemingly comparable issues: challenges such as the 'Arab Spring', and even Wikileaks, have questioned a view that diplomacy is grounded on a shared understanding of international relations, especially on what constitutes a state and who controls state information. Accordingly, what can we learn today from early-modern diplomats who faced similar challenges? Equally, what can scholars learn from the experiences of contemporary diplomats dealing with 'new' states (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan) and with cross-cultural relations. Secondly, the interdisciplinary network will eschew narrowly political accounts of diplomacy. It will bring together established scholars and early-career researchers from history, modern languages, anthropology, art and architectural history, legal history, and international relations. It will also involve members of the heritage sector (e.g. English Heritage). Together, we will analyze the social and cultural processes that contribute to creating a global diplomatic community.

These aims and objectives will be examined through four themes:

Translating cultures
How did peoples of different political and religious persuasions find common diplomatic ground? Our period was of critical importance in the history of cross-cultural relations - issues of enormous sensitivity today - as Europeans frequently engaged with 'others': Muslim, African and Asian powers, as well as competing confessions following the Reformation. Who were best qualified to bridge cultural and confessional boundaries - merchants, artists, scientists, translators?

Symbolic languages
We will assess the power of diplomatic rituals and symbols - did shared understandings emerge of how diplomats should be treated and how they should interact? What happened when rituals were challenged? Could rituals re-define the very notion of sovereignty? The non-textual languages of diplomacy included space and material culture. How did diplomats move through palaces and charged political spaces? What access did they have to each other and to sovereigns? How were diplomatic gifts and the exchange of art interpreted?

The methodologies for studying diplomatic practice
How can researchers from different disciplines and countries learn from each other and develop a robust methodological framework for the area of study? Ideas will be shared through a dedicated website and the outcomes disseminated through an edited volume. We aim to ensure that the network leads to future collaborative work beyond the life of the AHRC funding.

Between the early-modern and modern worlds
To what extent are current problems comparable to, or different from, those faced by early-modern diplomatic actors? What can early-modern scholars learn from current practitioners of diplomacy and vice-versa? Also, how can we re-interpret material culture through the study of early-modern diplomacy?

The network's potential beneficiaries will include the academic sector, the FCO and the heritage sector. First, the network will serve as a unique international hub for various research projects that are currently taking place around Europe, encompassing established and early-career researchers. The FCO and the academic network will gain mutual insights into diplomatic practice through understanding the early-modern 'models' and their contemporary counterparts. The heritage sector will benefit by fresh interpretations of assets such as palaces and other items of material culture, forming potentials for future collaboration

Planned Impact

Our network will be an interdisciplinary examination of how the early-modern world acquired shared 'languages' of diplomacy. These were articulated verbally and non-verbally, at the boundaries between state and non-state power. These issues are not only of academic importance, but also have powerful resonances with contemporary diplomatic problems and also with the interpretation of key heritage assets.
The network is projected to involve participants from the public and heritage sectors, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and English Heritage (EH), and we are in dialogue with the National Gallery. The network will furthermore be overseen by advisors from the FCO and EH. They will participate in workshops where appropriate, to provide keynote talks and critical commentaries on papers. They will also provide a means by which the network will identify areas for future collaborative work.
Central to the network is knowledge exchange, whereby encounters between academics and non-academics transform knowledge and practice for both. Just as academics will benefit from the stakeholders' knowledge and understanding, so stakeholders will benefit from the kinds of theoretical and methodological insights that academics bring to bear on the analysis of diplomatic practice. A clearer understanding of potential benefits can best be achieved through two examples:

The FCO's participation will be mutually beneficial. Two network participants recently served as diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have extensive experience of dealing with new diplomatic actors from different religious and cultural traditions. As an official FCO historian, Keith Hamilton will provide expertise on modern diplomatic practice. We are in discussion also with a senior employee of the intelligence services, whom we hope will particpate in the FCO workshop, adding a dimension to our work on the nature of secrecy as an element of diplomatic communication. By examining the interplay between early-modern diplomacy and current practice, we aim to inform practicing diplomats about the social, cultural and political backdrop to modern diplomacy. Many key issues facing contemporary international politics have a considerable back-story. Why, for example, do we assume that only sovereign powers could engage in diplomacy? Who was qualified to act as a diplomat? Why was secrecy a sovereign prerogative? How should diplomacy operate amongst peoples with different religious or cultural frameworks? For early-modern scholars, FCO involvement will enable us to reflect more fully on the practical issues of diplomacy, and refine our questions for future research.

The involvement of participants from EH with expertise in Historic Royal Palaces, together with the involvement of the Society of Court Studies, will inform us of how heritage assets, such as the Queen's House at Greenwich, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, were used as diplomatic spaces. These are key national resources that were re-shaped in the early-modern period to meet changing expectations of diplomatic practice. In turn, we hope that the network will identify ways of re-interpreting these assets today, for academic and wider public audiences. This might lead to fruitful partnerships with Historic Royal Palaces, and also with emerging projects on the continent, in particular the Palatium project in Belgium, and that at Versailles.
Description This network delivered its workshops (, with additional panels at the 2014 RSA New York conference. It had two tracks for developing new research questions for future collaborations. Firstly, relating to challenges in early-modern diplomacy (new states, religious division, globalisation), it explored how practitioners sought to resolve cross-cultural tensions, extending to how material cultures of diplomacy (e.g. the visual arts) addressed differences. Secondly, it examined the connections between the early-modern and contemporary worlds, through dialogue with current practitioners (including ambassadors with recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan). Track one: the network addressed its research questions, with new collaborations developing (see portfolio). Additionally, I am currently planning a further essay collection involving network participants examining 'diplomatic space'; this was a theme of a panel I organised at the RSA conference in Chicago, 2017. However, I have had to postpone this temporarily. This past year, I have had some very significant family health issues to deal with, which resulted in me taking formal time off work. As as result, I have had to prioritise the completion of a monograph, which I had intended to complete this past year for the REF. My work has been further hampered by the pandemic. I aim to return to the essay collection once I have completed my monograph. The network has also directly informed my developing relationship with the heritage sector - the Bowes Museum and Auckland Castle - and the forthcoming opening of Auckland Castle's major research centre of Spanish art. In 2014 I contributed to the Bowes Spanish symposium connected with their Spanish art exhibition. The audience comprised non-academics and senior curatorial staff from various British collections, the National Gallery and the Prado; I contributed to the associated exhibition catalogue. I anticipate further collaborations, directly shaped by the network. E.g., from October 2016 I began a PhD supervision, on ambassadorial and consort dress at the English court as a form of cultural translation; the student is working at the cross-roads between academic research and the heritage sector; she has already had a placement with the School of Historical Dress, London, and I hope that she will be able to collaborate with the Bowes, which is one of the country's major museums for dress culture, outside the V&A.
Track two: the network's unique dialogue between early-modern specialists and current practitioners generated new collaborations, refined following my network's last meeting with the investigators of the two related AHRC networks ('Textual Ambassadors', 'Diplomatic Cultures'), and my involvement in a UCL matchmaking event organised by Jason Dittmer and Fiona McConnell. This has been enhanced by participating in AHRC workshops at the Institute for Government. I led a grant application to HERA 'uses of the past' theme ('Europe as a diplomatic actor', 5087-00577A), with colleagues from Italy (history and archives), Belgium (history), Spain (IR), and the UK (geography). While the application was unsuccessful, I co-organised a conference with Simon Rofe (IR, SOAS), in association with the British Council: 'The Embassy in London: History, Practice, Space' (7-8 July 2016), based around the opening of the new US embassy. It involved academics, serving ambassadorial staff in London, members of policy institutes and centres (e.g. Royal College of Defence Studies), and the US embassy's lead architect; the audience included ambassadorial staff, and FCO personnel, building on their partnership with my network. The principal output, it is hoped, will be a volume in M.U.P.'s 'Key Studies in Diplomacy' series, though this too has been put on hold in the current circumstances outlined above. This dialogue with practitioners might lead to the co-production of future research, intended to bring about societal impacts from the network. However, because of my family health issues, as noted above, as well as the consequences of the pandemic, this has temporarily been put on hold. I hope to return to this once I have completed my monograph.
Exploitation Route The network identified two non-academic audiences, the heritage and diplomatic sectors. Their uses of the network are still maturing. In terms of the first, the network is informing my developing relationships with the Bowes Museum and Auckland Castle. My work has already benefited the Bowes, and my future work described above, will, I hope, engage with curatorial staff, and, potentially, the wider public, e.g. by informing exhibition and publicity material produced by the galleries. Regarding the second theme, the HERA application involved non-academic partners (the Archivio di Stato, Milan, the Association of European Border Regions, and was in negotiation with The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, and The European External Action Service). If the application can be advanced elsewhere, the diplomatic sector will be able to use the research to inform their understandings of Europe as a diplomatic actor, past, present and future. The embassy conference, as a network outcome, will directly benefit ambassadorial staff serving in London, the FCO and institutes and cultural bodies who interact with embassies, e.g., the British Council. I am still hoping to produce an edited collection for consumption by stakeholders, though this has been put on hold because of the issues notes above relating to family health issues, my monograph and the pandemic.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description Findings The associated conference organised at SOAS (7 July 2016), on Embassies in London, involving ambassadorial staff and academics included a questionnaire, to elicit responses from practitioners. This included a question about how academics might help practitioners in their work. We have the responses scanned as a PDF, which can be produced, if requested. The responses include, for example, from a three-person delegation of the Swiss Foreign Office that the day 'Helps understand the bigger picture of our sometimes "lost in details" world. Widens my horizons'. From a member of the Spanish Foreign Office with responsibility for Estates and Buildings, who attended with the aim of learning to 'improve her work': 'By studying the aims that guided embassies from the beginnings to nowadays help me understand the buildings and to think how future embassies have to be'. We will look on how to build on the various responses we had for our outputs and future plans arising from the conference
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Partner in AHRC research network 
Organisation Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution As P-I I organised a workshop at the FCO involving academics and practitioners from the FCO, Cabinet Office, and involving also an NGO and policy think tank.
Collaborator Contribution The partner provided the venue, The India Office.
Impact As the network is still ongiong, there are no current ouputs.
Start Year 2014