Who speaks and for whom?

guest post by Nicholas Baker

Read Nicholas’s article from the November issue

That George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, as well as HBO’s television adaptation, Game of Thrones, is rooted in and inspired by the medieval and early modern history of Europe is widely acknowledged – by the author not least of all. His fictive seven kingdoms of Westeros present a parallel-universe, late-medieval Europe. Now I enjoy the thrill of the series as much as anyone, and I also understand that it is entirely fiction. But as a historian of early modernity, I have always found the depiction of politics in the series remarkably simplistic, given that so much of the energy of the story derives from a realistic and well-imagined struggle for power.


The storyline revolves around an understanding of late medieval politics as purely feudal. What is missing is any sense of the rich mosaic of corporate and civic political life of pre-modern Europe. This is more than idle speculation by a historian who thinks too much about everything. Such a depiction of pre-modern politics reflects not only popular-culture attitudes but also some enduring, deep-rooted understandings. There is a remarkable affinity, in fact, between the understanding of pre-modern political structures displayed in the series and that depicted in Jurgen Habermas’ still influential The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: it’s all about kings and lords with no sense of political life elsewhere in the society.


Of course, historians have long since refined and reconsidered Habermas’ vision of the evolution of a political space in which the governed could exercise a voice. This reconsideration has pushed back the frontier of such space further and further into the early modern period. But this revision and debate remain, to a great extent, trapped in the language of Habermas, in the idea of a public sphere mediating between the formal, political sphere and the private sphere of individual and family.


I became interested in the debates and ideas about early modern publicness while writing about the end of such a political space in mid-sixteenth-century Florence in my book The Fruit of Liberty (2013), as the Medici principality replaced the republican system of the previous two centuries. I realized, however, that I was making assumptions about how such publicness operated in republican Florence. So in the article appearing in Past & Present, I consider what such a space actually consisted of and how it operated prior to the institution of a monarchical government. Who spoke in the representative institutions of Renaissance Florence and whom did these speakers represent? As I investigated and thought about these questions, I found the entire, well-worn category of the public sphere inadequate to describe what I was seeing.


Niccolò Machiavelli and Matteo Palmieri, among others, of course, had claimed in differing manners that the free exchange of opinion, active, vigorous debate, was essential to the survival of a republic. Late medieval Florence appeared to have considered such exchanges so important as to have institutionalized them in the form of ad-hoc consultative assemblies—the consulte e pratiche—summoned to deliberate on the most pressing questions of the day. Thanks to the Florentine habit of transcribing these meetings—rather exceptional in the secretive world of pre-modern deliberative bodies—historians have a unique set of documents to analyze. At first glance, these protocols appear to present the sort of exchange of ideas and opinions praised by Machiavelli and Palmieri. Further examination of the records of these forums, however, suggests that the picture was more complicated.


A close reading and analysis of the protocols of the consulte from the tumultuous year 1512 suggests that the form of such deliberative bodies mattered as much as any actual deliberation. It suggests that the questions about who spoke and for whom should perhaps be rephrased to ask, who spoke and what did they represent? In the article appearing in Past & Present I offer some answers to these questions by exploring what purposes the consulte served if their role as a source of representation and consultation was limited. The answers to these questions hopefully suggest some ways forward for reconsidering the nature of publicness not only in Renaissance Florence but also in pre-modern Europe more broadly.


Nicholas’s article, ‘Discursive Republicanism in Renaissance Florence: Deliberation and Representation in the Early Sixteenth Century’, is now available

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