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The King Invites

Performing Power at a Courtly Dining Table


Daniëlle De Vooght

This book was awarded the «Joop Witteveenprijs 2012».
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.


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Conclusions. Performing Power at a Courtly Dining Table 239


239 CONCLUSIONS Performing Power at a Courtly Dining Table On July 21, 1831, Leopold von Saksen-Coburg took the oath as first king of the Belgians. In the weeks that followed, several courtly dinners were organized, assembling both national and international prominent figures.1 The king’s intentions were clear: the new nation needed to be founded on a basis of confidence and trust, both internally and interna- tionally. And where to stimulate those feelings more than at the dining table? However, should these gatherings be classified as political events or rather as symbolic efforts to unify the nation? In 1867, Walter Bagehot proposed the differentiation between the efficient and dignified parts of the constitution in order to grasp how a (constitutional) monarchy could still be a workable means of govern- ment after the French Revolution meant the downfall of several monar- chies and the successful installment of various republics. He – and with him his “followers”, both contemporary and more recent – stated that the kings and queens were (or definitely should be) ascribed a merely symbolic function that encouraged the citizens to identify with their nation and that true politics and, thus, power took place in Parliament (preferably out of the public’s sight). If this was true, the aforemen- tioned courtly dinners should be regarded as sheer symbolic display. Several authors, such as te Velde and Deneckere, have objected to this line of thinking. They stated that, first, not only should the monarch not be regarded as exempt from (political) power and, second,...

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