General presentation of the programme

The Centre de recherche du château de Versailles has launched a research programme entitled “Foreigners at the Bourbon Court of France (1594-1789). Strategies, Transfers, Suspicion”.

Coordinated by Jean-François Dubost, professor at the Université Paris-Est Créteil Val-de-Marne, together with the CRCV and in collaboration with its partners and other research institutions, this programme sets out to resolve these two issues:

  • in the modern era, the foreign presence in European courts increased significantly, and in France there were certainly more foreigners at the Court than in any other section of society, yet little is known about the broader perspective of this phenomenon. Existing studies, focusing for the most part on specific themes, high profile figures and certain national groups, are often limited by the academic boundaries of research in the field of study (history of international relations, internal State history, social, political and cultural history, etc.) and their relevance is also questionable, particularly in the study of court societies;
  • the historiography of the European courts is still split between the historical traditions of each country, hampering our ability to make relevant comparisons on a European scale.

The aim of this programme is to respond to this two-fold historiographic splintering by proposing one subject for research – foreigners at court – which in itself requires a lateral approach to the history of European courts, whilst also approaching the subject in its broadest perspective. In order to achieve this, we must look at who was classed as a “foreigner”, an unequivocal term today but for which the definition still poses considerable problems, especially in relation to court society, and while examining this we are again required to draw comparisons from throughout Europe.

Therefore, rather than restricting the study to any particular group of foreigners at court (diplomats, ministers or artists, who feature most often), this programme will aim to take in every aspect of the foreign presence at French courts, drawing on the widest possible variety of sources (royal decrees, notarial archives, police sources, correspondence and travel journals), and cross referencing the study of geographical mobility – networks (approached as much from a social as a political or cultural point of view), cultural exchanges, the development of diplomatic and cultural representation, rituals and ceremonies and the history of law and institutions.

For sociological reasons (endogamy decreases as one rises up the social ladder in order to conform to the need for homogamy - finding a partner from the same social background), European aristocracies had become closely interconnected groups through marital alliances that disregarded state boundaries, and thus was the main reason for the cosmopolitan nature of the royal courts. This is certainly one of the most important factors in the development of a European intercurial infrastructure, which in every court relied on princes, princesses and courtiers of foreign origin - networks that should be fully explored, from a French viewpoint, in all their various forms (social, political and diplomatic, intellectual and artistic), demonstrating their existence rather than just assuming it. Within this context, the court is seen not as a closed society but as a microcosm in the truest sense of the word, as a world in miniature, parallel with and connected to the outside world, or, in more contemporary terms, an interface between the rest of the kingdom and other European courts. As an interface between the king and his kingdom, the court is where power struggles between the monarch and his subjects were negotiated and modified, where the subjects’ duties and privileges were defined or redefined. The same applied, therefore, whether successful or otherwise, to the duties and privileges of foreigners who, although present at court, did not recognise its sovereignty. As the interface between France and other States through their representatives at the French court, this was also where power relations were negotiated and modified, where French artistic and cultural achievements were displayed and compared with those of other countries, as people and objects moved between countries, an important feature of court life. In this way, the court helped to define fashions, tastes and styles as “French” or “foreign”. On the other hand, these cultural and diplomatic exchanges also contributed to constructing a shared European cultural identity, and to bringing powers such as Russia, considered barbaric according to national stereotypes of the time, into the alliance of European States. The field that this programme opens, therefore, is part of the new historiographical approach underlining the fact that the history of international relations consists of much more than the history of diplomacy.

It also involves examining how the court became the setting for a collective affirmation of the “imagined community” of the French people, which, in order to assert itself as such, constructed a particular representation of its identity; an identity that was expressed not only through its decors and its entertainment, but also through the machinery of government. An ideal place to demonstrate the power of the monarchy, the court dramatised the specifically French nature of this power, and thereby contributed to the affirmation of national feeling based on two focal points: the king and his sovereign territory. Reflecting on the presence of foreigners in a context such as this also means reflecting on the process and methods of the affirmation – underestimated for many years – of French national identity under the Bourbons.

The French court thus presented the apparent paradox of being a cosmopolitan crucible in which national feeling was forged, even if it was not the only place where this was happening. One of the main objectives of this programme is to throw light on this paradox by endeavouring to trace, from a quantitative point of view, the development of the international presence at court, whilst considering the methods adopted. The initial hypothesis is that there were increasingly few foreigners at the Bourbon court directly serving the royal family – a development that records the strengthening of national feeling and the progressive construction of the “foreigner” as a political group – yet there were increasing numbers of foreigners either in the service of other States or serving their own interests, especially by observing a cultural practice that was also an indicator of social standing: the educational rite of passage or “Grand Tour”, where a visit to the French court had effectively become a requirement.

Two key areas of study

To meet these objectives, the work carried out in this programme will be organised into two key areas:

Key area 1: “Foreign courtiers at the Bourbon Court (1594-1789)

This area of study focuses on those who held specific posts at court, either by becoming part of the royal or princely households of France, or by obtaining the status of “King’s pensioner”, or by serving foreign princes or States at court.
Research coordinator: Jean-François Dubost, professor at the Université Paris-Est Créteil Val-de-Marne.

Key area 2: “European travellers at the Bourbon Court of France (1594-1789) – differing perspectives”

This area of study focuses more specifically on examining the practical details of travel at the time, the visitor’s views of the French court, and the court visit as a political device, moving on to an analysis of the impact and cultural transfers promoted by this intercourt tourism.
Research coordinator: Caroline zum Kolk (CRCV).


>  Study days “What constitutes a “foreigner” in the French court ? Redefinition and affirmation of a social grouping in the France of Louis XIV, 8-9 December 2011 (Versailles).

>  Symposia “European travellers at the Bourbon Court of France (1594-1789) – differing perspectives”, 31 January-1 February 2013 (Institut historique allemand).

>  Publication of papers from the symposium of 2013 in our “Aulica” collection (in French).

>  A special issue of the Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles is dedicatee to the critical edition of five sources of the modern era reflecting the reception of foreign visitors at the court of France.

>  Study day “The Movement of Foreigners at the Bourbon Court of France”, 12 April 2013 (Versailles). Non-public study day.

>  Publication, directed by Jean-François Dubost, of proceedings resulting from the study days held in 2011 and in 2013 in the Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles (in French).

>  Online publication of a collection of sources on foreigners at court with a folder dedicated to foreigners at the Bourbon court through notarial acts (1618-1690) and another one to ambassadors under Henri IV and Louis XIII (1595-1643) (in French).

>  Participation in the exhibition of the Palace of Versailles “Visiteurs de Versailles : voyageurs, princes, ambassadeurs : 1682-1789” (October 22, 2017 - February 25, 2018).

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