Transformations of Intercultural Diplomacies: Comparative Views on Asia and Europe (1700 to 1850)

Transformations of Intercultural Diplomacies: Comparative Views on Asia and Europe (1700 to 1850)

Prof. Dr. Henrietta Harrison (University of Oxford); Prof. Dr. Christian Windler (University of Berne); Nadine Amsler, M.A. (University of Berne)
Vom - Bis
02.06.2016 - 04.06.2016
Prof. Dr. Christian Windler

The history of diplomacy and foreign relations is undergoing radical conceptual and methodological change. Instead of the traditional state-centred view, new approaches have highlighted the interpersonal nature of early modern foreign relations. These were managed by agents who, by serving their rulers, also pursued other interests concerning their person, family, or locality. The fruitfulness of an approach focusing on these intermediaries has also been highlighted by historians focusing on intercultural diplomacies. Indeed, growing interest in entangled histories that examine the global interconnections between societies has given new importance to the study of the lives and ideas of those who moved between cultures. In this context, the history of diplomacy is particularly interesting because it gives us the opportunity to look at how people at the time understood and dealt with different normative orders. Instead of emphasising essentialised cultural difference, this approach encourages us to examine how mutual perceptions and normative orders are actually produced through the practice of diplomacy.

The workshop centres on a period which has been singled out as a moment of profound transformations in intra-European diplomatic practice as well as in diplomatic and cultural relations between Asian and European societies. It aims to bring together historians working on different Asian and European diplomacies in order to study early modern Eurasian diplomatic encounters as well as their transformations between 1700 and 1850 in a comparative as well as in an entangled perspective. Four sets of questions will be addressed.

First, we will investigate the nature of political entities which came in contact. Did diplomatic protagonists represent the person of their ruler or an abstract state? How were they perceived and treated by their counterpart? Did both sides accept their relation as a relation among equals, or did one side (or both) verbally or symbolically claim superiority, as was for instance the case in the relations between the courts of the Ottoman, Russian and Holy Roman Empire, where the actual status of rulers was negotiated through ceremonial practices? Were foreign relations conceived as a separate realm in opposition to internal power relations?

Second, we will ask about the social identities of the agents managing diplomatic relations. Which were their status and social roles? Did they consider their activity as a specialised and exclusive professional service or was this activity part of a multiple set of social roles, each of which might have been underpinned by specific and sometimes conflicting sets of norms? Was the intensification of exchanges key to the social ascent of other specialised intermediaries such as interpreters, as research on the shifting status of dragomans and consuls in the Mediterranean area might suggest?

Third, the activities of diplomatic intermediaries will be considered as part of a broader set of practices of interaction. Papers may, for example, address practices such as court ceremonial or the giving of gifts or tribute, which could be understood in different ways and so carried the risk of misunderstanding, but also allowed for divergent interpretations and thus enabled participants to save face and maintain relations on terms acceptable to both sides. To what extent is ambiguity the key to understanding how different diplomacies dealt with each other’s practices based on competing pretences to superiority, as well as with differences in the empires’ ability to project power beyond the core areas of their dominions, and with claims for formal equality based on the juridical concept of sovereignty? In focusing on the practice of diplomacy between different cultural spheres, the workshop aims to contest the notion that the diplomacy of non-Western empires such as Qing dynasty China, or the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Mughal Empire (and its South-Indian rivals), was uniquely characterised by a sense of cultural superiority, and look instead at how the practice of diplomacy negotiated these varying claims.

Finally, the workshop will analyse the transformation of pre-modern systems of status politics in the period around 1800. How did the new European concept of statehood, which considered sovereignty defined in the terms of public law the only criterion of inclusion to a system of relations between formally equal, sovereign states, spread in other parts of the Eurasian continent from this period onwards? Where did limitations of sovereignty become an efficient argument for excluding political actors from the diplomatic stage, and for subsequently subject them to imperial or colonial rule? How was the practice of diplomacy modified in this process? By bringing together specialists of Asian and European history, the workshop aims at comparing diplomatic incidents which occurred when these developments collided with continued universal claims of Asian empires (for example in the context of the Amherst Embassy to China in 1816). It is our hypothesis that the manipulations and differing interpretations of such incidents offer valuable insights into different cultural systems.


The workshop will include papers surveying the state of research as well as presentations of case studies. Papers taking into consideration the whole set of questions outlined above as well as papers with a comparative focus are especially welcome. Proposals consisting of the title of the paper and of a short abstract (about 500 words) should be handed in by 31 March 2015. They should be sent to or .

Workshop papers will have to be submitted by Friday 6 May, 2016. This will give enough time to the discussants to prepare their comments and to the organizers to circulate the papers to all the participants for advance reading. In Berne, the participants will have 15 to 20 minutes to summarize and explain their papers, in order to leave ample time for discussion.

The workshop is organised under the joint scientific coordination of Prof. Dr. Henrietta Harrison (Oxford) and Prof. Dr. Christian Windler (Berne), in cooperation with Nadine Amsler (Berne). It will take place at the University of Berne (Switzerland) under the administrative responsibility of the section of Early Modern History.



Prof. Dr. Christian Windler

Historisches Institut der Universität Bern
Länggassstr. 49
CH-3000 Bern 9 (Switzerland)