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Cornerstones of noble identity ?

Call for papers

Wednesday 11 February 2009, by Antoine Roullet

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Session in the Elites Network of the 2010 European Social Science History Conference in Ghent, Belgium (April 13-April 16).

For decades, researchers have endeavoured to unravel noble behaviour or aristocratic values in the context of religious wars or changing political views. Whether these behaviours or values are studied in an early modern context or, for example, in relation to the rise of the “bourgeoisie” in the 19th century, the issues concerned are often the same. Aspects of honour and dynastic loyalty, for instance, remain especially difficult to place when it comes to noble revolts or the nature of a “transnational” identity. How can we explain the ability of the nobility to seize opportunities, even when these are ambiguous and may lead them to betray their former commitments and their traditional (and proclaimed) values?

In recent historiography concerning Early Modern Europe, for example, the relation or conflict between the concepts of ‘patria’ (as the attempt to shape a “national” aristocratic identity) and ‘loyalty’ have been regarded as key-notions in the explanation of noble behaviour in times of crisis, like for instance during the European wars of religion. However, the notion of ‘patria’ is in itself a contested and difficult one in a world dominated by ever changing borders and dynastic politics. Even in modern times, the complex and changing relationships between the central authorities in modern(izing) European states and the aristocratic forces remains largely unexplored. It seems that the underlying question, the nature or “identity” of the nobility in relation to its strategies and practices, has yet remained unanswered.

Studying such a vast and intriguing social group as “the aristocracy” over such a long period of time, offers almost limitless opportunities. However, in focussing on periods of crisis (from a political, social, military, religious, ... point of view), we have the unique opportunity to study the changing behaviours of one of the most politically active groups in society in a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective. For it is in times of crisis that denominations, national identities and the legitimacy of the authorities are often jeopardized. These crisis situations often forced the aristocracy to (re)define crucial notions, like social status or function. In short, in times of crisis, a noble social identity becomes apparent.

In this session we will endeavour to reach the core of “the noble identity”. We will especially focus on the concept of “loyalty” as a crucial notion in the formation of this very specific social identity, whether it concerns dynastic loyalty, loyalty to family, friends (in relation to patronage), vassals, etc. Crucial issues in this respect, are the relation between loyalty and patrimony in times of crisis, the relation between dynastic loyalty and religious choice, the role of honour as a justifying concept in times of changing loyalties, etc. Of special importance are the possibly “gendered” nature and expressions of this concept of loyalty: did women and men have the same conceptions of loyalty, and according to this concept, what were their respective duties? We welcome papers presenting the result of comparative or interdisciplinary research.

Proposals for papers in English (max. 300 words) should be addressed by e-mail to Bertrand Goujon ( or to Mirella Marini ( by 1 April 2009. The organisers will make a selection of proposals. Anyone who submitted a proposal will be informed by 15 June 2009.


Bertrand Goujon (Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne,
Mirella Marini (VU University Amsterdam,

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