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M.K. Williams, Dr

Universitair docent
Profielfoto van M.K. Williams, Dr

"Paper Princes: Paper in the Expansion of European Statecraft"

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Vernieuwingsimpuls / Innovational Research Incentives VENI Grant, 2012-2017

How do societies deal with new technologies? This project begins from the premise that the general expansion and intensification of diplomatic traffic and communications in Europe in the period after ca. 1450 was in part facilitated by, and shaped by, the spread in the same period of papermaking technologies and affordable paper. With easier access to paper, early modern diplomats and chancelleries faced unprecedented opportunities for obtaining, communicating and managing knowledge about the political world -- but also unprecedented challenges. What effect, this project asks, did this relatively new technology of paper -- a pliable, affordable, durable (although humanists were skeptical of this) and portable new technology -- have on early modern diplomacy and what we might term foreign policy-making processes?

This project uses archival research to examine how sixteenth-century chancelleries procured paper, processed incoming diplomatic correspondence, and organized the resulting mountains of information-bearing paper. What material constraints did chancelleries face in political knowledge management? The often daily paper-borne correspondence among European rulers and their diplomats inundated chancelleries and dramatically altered routines of political decision-making and governance. How did rulers and their chancelleries respond to such 'information overload'? Finally, how was this paper conserved and organized for future use? Archives, as the field of archival studies has shown, are more than mere repositories of paper; archiving can also reveal contemporary assumptions and values. What do early modern diplomatic archives reveal about their creators' and users' perceptions of their place in the world? How did paper enable princes and their (diplomatic) servants to project these conceptions at home and abroad? This project thus contributes to timely questions about the ways in which Western societies have historically used and organized information.

This project builds on and contributes to a recent surge of international interest in historical knowledge management. Recent research has demonstrated just how much the ways we think about and organize knowledge ('knowledge cultures') have shaped the ways knowledge is deployed. Historians of science have also encouraged new attention to practices and materiality of pre-modern knowledge cultures. Such approaches shed exciting and innovative light on the tools we use to manage knowledge today. Yet although much of the surviving material evidence of early modern knowledge management is on paper, and although a significant proportion of that paper relates to diplomacy, little attention has been directed to date to the technology of paper and paper-borne knowledge cultures in diplomacy.

Early modern diplomacy lies at the foundation of our current international system, and its history is also currently being re-written in exciting new ways. Historians of early modern diplomacy have begun to expand their definition of diplomacy from a narrowly institutional or military approach, to better reflect the heterogeneity of pre-modern diplomatic relations. By melding this 'new' and more inclusive diplomatic history with an innovative material approach to the adoption of paper and of new strategies for political knowledge management, this project expands our conception of early modern diplomacy and diplomatic relations -- as well as our understanding of how the modern international system developed.

The richly-documented, often undervalued, but strategically located Austrian Habsburg court provides an ideal case-study for exploring the impact of paper on early modern diplomacy. Positioned between the early papermaking and diplomatic centers of northern Italy and southern Germany, on the borders of the expanding Ottoman empire, yet the (formal) heart of the vast early modern Habsburg empire, the court was a key nexus of information exchange -- and paper consumption. 

These technological, socio-cultural, material, and epistemological components enable a comprehensive analysis of paper's role -- 'the paper trail' -- in early modern diplomacy and diplomatic relations. They also illuminate how early modern struggles with information control, information management and information overload shaped the strategies and tools we use to approach similar challenges in today's 'knowledge economy'.

For recent publications in the project, see the tab "Research/Onderzoek" in this Profile.

For more see the project's website:

For the project's 2016 conference see

For the project's 2017-2018 exhibition see

In addition to her research on the intersections between paper and diplomacy, which she is currently expanding in global context,

Dr. Williams also continues to conduct research into the legal and political structures surrounding diplomatic immunity in transit in early modern Eurasia, including safe-conducts, into secretarial and chancellery cultures, and into diplomatic cultures in early modern Europe (e.g., diplomatic sociability, diplomacy and gout, diplomatic gift cultures, diplomats as art patrons).

Laatst gewijzigd:25 juni 2022 14:35