Art and material culture can be important sources of knowledge about parliaments

An interview with Professor Paulina Kewes

What can art or products of material culture tell us about parliamentary culture? How was early modern parliamentary culture reflected in cultural heritage sites and what conclusions can modern parliaments draw from early modern parliamentarism? These issues are discussed by Paulina Kewes, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, who is Principal Investigator on the “Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700” project and co-organizer of the major international conference to be held in in Cracow in June 2022.


Natalia Pochroń: Much has been written about the history of representative assemblies. Where did the idea for a transnational interdisciplinary project on European parliamentary culture come from?

Paulina Kewes: The idea grew out of my work on the early modern royal succession. My book, Contesting the Royal Succession in Reformation England, More to Shakespeare, under contract with Oxford University Press, argues that the controversy about the succession dominated the reigns of Henry VIII’s childless children – Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  In researching this book, I became fascinated by the role played the English Parliament, and the parallels contemporaries invoked with other European assemblies, notably those of Poland-Lithuania, the Dutch Republic, and France. Throughout the sixteeenth century, English politicians, polemicists and imaginative writers debated how far Parliament should be involved in settling the succession to the crown, typically drawing on national and foreign history to substantiate their arguments.

And something very similar, I realised, was occurring on the Continent. So I went in search of a comparative study of early modern representative institutions – parliaments, states, estates, diets – which would explain this process and do so not only in legal-constitutional terms, but also by looking at political thought and culture. But there wasn’t such a book to be found! Political assemblies, I discovered, have been characteristically studied within national silos, and very little has been done to examine them from the perspectives of cultural and intellectual history. That convinced me that there is scope for a major comparative reassessment of Europe’s parliamentary tradition and culture.

Prof. Paulina Kewes, University of Oxford (photo credit: Ander McIntyre)

So how did you go about setting up the new research project?

I knew that the project had to bring together specialists from diverse fields – history, literature, politics and political thought, material culture – and from diverse national scholarly traditions who haven’t necessarily worked on representative institutions but who would be willing to take the plunge and bring their unique expertise to this venture. Only in this way would it be possible to go beyond the by now rather limited methodological paradigms and set new agendas for the study of Europe’s representative institutions and their cultural dimension. A great deal of work has been done on the culture of Renaissance monarchies and royal courts, and the same attention ought to be extended to representative bodies.

But of course we needed an expert on parliaments, one, however, whose own work transcends the narrow bounds of institutional history. So I approached Dr Paul Seaward, an eminent scholar of the English Parliament. Meanwhile, I also approached Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves, Professor of Political Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, whose work, like Paul’s, transcends conventional boundaries of periods and disciplines. Once Paul and Dorota were on board, things developed rather quickly. We were awarded a major grant by the Europaeum (, a network of leading European universities for an international conference on our theme to be held in Krakow in 2022, and we succeeded in winning a grant from Oxford University’s John Fell Fund for a one-year pilot that will see us scrutinize the culture of the three most robust parliamentary institutions of the early modern period: the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm, the English Parliament, and the Dutch States General.

What new can the project bring to the current state of knowledge?

We aim to reinvigorate the scholarly debate in three ways: first, we want to apply the relatively neglected cultural angle to early modern political assemblies. Secondly, we will draw comparisons between parliamentary cultures of countries across early modern Europe, which has hardly been done so far (certainly not between Eastern and Western Europe) as well as glancing at those of the English/British colonial assemblies in North America and the Caribbean. Thirdly, we also plan to incorporate a ‘heritage’ perspective in the discussions: today, many countries in Europe – and worldwide, for that matter – still have proud parliamentary traditions, yet we believe that there is a lack of understanding of the common roots of these political traditions as well as a limited awareness of the continuities and discontinuities between the present day and the shared past.

What is parliamentary culture?  How has this concept changed over the years?

That’s just it: there is not really a clear definition, and we are the first to apply it to early modern parliaments and assemblies of estates. In the past, historians have looked at common elements such as architectural features of assembly halls, perhaps the most famous being the English Houses of Parliament, or they have researched resemblances between paintings of those same buildings. More recently, German colleagues have examined shared aspects of the language that early modern parliamentarians used during their gatherings, illustrating the  common interest in the Classical tradition, for example. We want to build on but also go beyond these types of analysis, and consider other cultural aspects such as practices of archiving and record-keeping, gathering and dissemination of news and the publication of statutes, the manner in which historical, political, religious, imaginative, and polemical writings dealt with parliaments, and so forth. At this stage, we are keen to avoid tunnel vision.

Polish Senate and Aleksander Jagiellończyk

Why is interdisciplinary research on parliamentary culture important? What do we gain by approaching it from a comparative perspective?

Inter- and multidisciplinary approaches are especially important to enrich our thinking about cultural elements that are, and were, shared between different countries, especially with such a hard-to-define concept as ‘parliamentary culture’. The traditional way of only looking at texts produced within, by, and for the institutions themselves tells us very little about how representative bodies were perceived by other members of society, for example. This is why there is so much value in collaborating with, say, book historians who investigate pamphlets, that circulated among ordinary people. As to the comparative perspective: what’s interesting is that, intuitively, to most of us it will seem as clear as day that European political assemblies have shared, and still share, many common features. Even more so, because most historians have moved away from the idea that history moves in a linear direction as a kind of evolutionary process (or ‘progress’). This means that the shared features of our current representative governments are largely the product of interactions and common grounds of the past.

One could argue that without this shared cultural heritage, collaborations within an organization such as the European Union would be a lot harder than they are. But it goes beyond Europe, really: think of the United States Congress, for example. This is a political institution steeped in symbols and rituals whose origins can be traced back to pre-modern Europe. And so, recovering the historical touchstones at the root of this shared cultural experience has a societal relevance well beyond academic history.

What can art or products of material culture tell us about parliamentary culture?

Visual sources such as paintings and engravings are invaluable because they often show details that go completely unmentioned in textual evidence; forms of dress of representatives and delegates is an obvious example. Beyond this, visual sources have a rich symbolic language all of their own. But at the same time, these symbols stem from the same cultural register as the written evidence. What is more, whereas one could argue that the ability for international sharing of parliamentary culture through texts was limited by the languages that people were able to read – which overlooks the fact that much was produced in Latin, a lingua franca that educated people in different countries could read – pictures could be processed even by people who were illiterate. The same applies to material culture. There are, for example, many surviving medals and other numismatic artefacts which members of representative assemblies and international diplomats carried around with them. These medals also partake in the same symbolic, cultural language as texts and engravings, even as they had a physical reality that was quite distinct.

Between 1500 and 1700, which is the timeframe of your project, the representative assemblies underwent many transformations. What were these changes?

It would take an entirely separate interview to enumerate all that changed over the sixteenth and seventeenth century. But if I am allowed to limit myself to a single aspect, it would be the rise of sovereign assemblies. At the start of our period, there were no representative institutions that could rival the power of European monarchs. Right at the start of our period, however, in 1505, the Polish Sejm was given expanded legislative powers. From that moment on, the King could no longer pass laws without the express consent of representatives in this assembly. The Dutch States General, meanwhile, as part of the revolt against their prince, completely appropriated sovereignty for their assembly in 1579 (although the confederated Provinces were technically sovereign within their own territories, which is slightly reminiscent of the present-day United States). A little over one century later, in 1689, the English parliament passed the famous Bill of Rights, according to which parliament and king would henceforth share powers of sovereignty. These are landmark events for the history of Western politics, and they all fall within our period.

Senate Hall at the castle in Warsaw

How was early modern parliamentary culture reflected in cultural heritage sites?

In the early modern period, many European assemblies became fixed in place, by which I mean that they increasingly gathered in buildings that were specifically designated for their meetings. Not coincidentally, the buildings they occupied were often former royal or princely residences, which served to underline the transfer of royal powers to these assemblies but also suggested political connections and continuities with princely rule. Both the inner halls and outside walls of these structures were rife with emblems and symbols of unity between the different estates, regions, and cities of their respective realms. A key example is the display of coats-of-arms on the outer walls of such assembly halls. Inside these places, there were other visual signs of the powers and procedures of the assemblies. The inside walls of the Palau de la Generalitat in the city of Valencia, for example, still feature early modern paintings of the representatives, showing us what these people wore, how they arranged themselves during meetings, and so forth.

How it is still reflected in cultural heritage sites today?

Many of the historic buildings that were the sites of early modern political assemblies are still being used by political assemblies today, such as the Dutch Binnenhof. But parts of these building complexes now double as museums and are open to the public. They also remain a prominent feature in the skyline of the capital cities in which they are located, much as they were in the early modern period. Some of these heritage sites, like the building complex of the Palace of Westminster, also contain the parliamentary archives – although this is increasingly rare, because most of such important document collections are kept in modern depositories to better preserve them.

What conclusions can modern parliaments draw from early modern parliamentarism?

For modern parliamentarians, as for citizens of present-day nations, it is important to be aware of their history; not just their own national history, but also of the wider international history of representative assemblies. On the one hand, this helps citizens and representatives not to glorify their mythical past, because I should stress that ‘representation’ meant something entirely different in the early modern period than it does today. For instance, even by 1700, only 23 per cent of Britain’s adult male population were eligible to vote, which depended on their income level. And entry to the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm was exclusively reserved for the nobility. Women were categorically excluded from representative positions until the 20th century.

Senator’s Chamber at the Royal Castle in Warsaw

On the other hand, we should not kid ourselves into thinking that the political systems of our own day are the pinnacle of a linear historical development towards better and greater things for all.  Much like studying the mores of other countries and peoples today, trying to understand past societies imparts a healthy dose of cultural relativism, and helps us avoid getting blindsided by presentism or teleological conceptions of ‘progress’. And, based on our recent findings, early modern parliamentarians may well have been better informed about the parliamentary cultures of neighbouring and far-off countries than their present-day counterparts.

What has been the response to your project so far?  

The response has been tremendously enthusiastic! The collaboration with the History of Parliament Trust brought the project to the attention of parliamentary historians across the British Isles and Ireland, a well as further afield. Meanwhile, we were invited to curate a blog series on the subject of European parliamentary culture for the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History. Its aim has been to open up the topic by encouraging scholars from diferent disciplines, different countries, and different backgrounds to reflect o the meanings and culture of political assemblies and what goes on in them.The series, which features contributions by distinguished scholars and younger researchers from England, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the US among others, has proved immensely popular – we are told over 2,000 people have been reading it!

Among the topics covered are: the culture of petitioning, the issue of majority rule, the export (or not) of parliament-like bodies to the colonies, the rhetoric of parliamentary debate, and so on. As well as generating a great deal of interest in our venture, the blog series also demonstrates the need for comparative transnational and interdisciplinary approaches, and the relative paucity of cultural studies of early modern assemblies of estates, in sharp contrast to a wealth of scholarship devoted to medieval assemblies on the one hand and to modern parliamentarism on the other. This omission is the more surprising given that the period with which our project is concerned, principally the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witnessed extraordinary religious and political upheavals precipitated by the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, as well as landmark intellectual developments, notably the emergence of comparative historiography, politics, and jurisprudence spearheaded by Jean Bodin and others.

An online event to mark the launch of the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project, and provide an opportunity to discuss the findings of our blog series, will be held via zoom on 5 January 2022, 3-5pm BST (4-6pm CET). We would be delighted if your readers would join us. To register please email: Alongside members of the project team, our panels will feature leading political and intellectual historians from Germany, Poland, and the UK.

What are your plans for the future?

We will be writing an overview of the current state of our field, ‘New Directions for Early Moderen Parliamentary Studies’, which has been commissioned by the journal History Compass and a methodological manifesto describing our comparative interdisciplinary approach, and developing model digital resources, including a database and an interactive map of early modern European assemblies of estates. As well as organizing a major international conference in Krakow, 22-24 June 2022, we are planning to hold a series of workshops in collaboration with the Centre for Polish-Lithuanian Studies in Aberdeen, Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in Amsterdam, and INTER PARES/Parliaments in Partnership –EU Global Project to Strengthen the Capacity of Parliaments. So watch this space!


Interviewer: Natalia Pochroń
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin