Performing Power at a Courtly Dining Table
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the role of the monarchy in Western Europe was redefined. Together with the absolutist sovereigns, the historian’s interest in courts and court life in the nineteenth century seems to have vanished.
This book investigates what happened to the institution of the monarchy in the nineteenth century. More specifically, it examines whether the nineteenth-century Belgian monarchs can be described as influential, or even powerful. The volume also deals with another hiatus in history writing, namely food at nineteenth-century courts. The author addresses these two issues by examining the Belgian king and queen’s dinner guests, as well as the food that was served at the palace. She considers questions such as who was invited, who got to share a table, how did the guest lists evolve over time, was the food adjusted according to the guests and how did the food evolve?
A social network analysis of the dinner guests and a qualitative analysis of the court food are used as tools to tackle these questions. In this way, this book deals with issues that touch upon the very core of society’s development: power, hierarchies, status, imitation, segregation and distinction.
13 INTRODUCTION I. The raison d’être of Monarchies in the Western World after 1789 In 1792, Thomas Paine1 sneered at the sheer existence of monarchy as a system of government: We must shut our eyes against reason, we must basely degrade our under- standing, not to see the folly of what is called monarchy. Nature is orderly in all her works; but this is a mode of government that counteracts nature. It turns the progress of the human faculties upside down. It subjects age to be governed by children, and wisdom by folly.2 Paine was a steadfast advocate of the res publica, a form of govern- ment with, ideally, the public good as its sole purpose. He believed that the republic would lead to human freedom and that the most natural manner to obtain this freedom was through (full) democratic representa- tion. It is from this conviction, an elaboration of the ideas developed during the Enlightenment by Voltaire and Rousseau, that his support for the American Revolution emanated; since the American government, which integrated the idea of representation in the notion of democracy, was rooted in this system, it was the most easily understandable form of government and the most desirable one in practice.3 In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine passionately defended the independence of the British American colonies, hereby calling King George III “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.”4 Although this appellation for the king left little to the imagination, Paine strongly denied supporting the eighteenth- century...
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