Organising the société des princes: The Management of Titles in Eighteenth-Century German Chancelleries
In 1734, the central chancellery of Frederick III, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, informed its sovereign about the number of official letters which he had sent during his first full year as a ruling prince – a total of 4640.1 This not only means that Frederick III had written his name several thousand times, but also hundreds of epithets and greetings, since signing a formal letter in early modern times included the use of individual ceremonial phrases that accompanied each and every signature.
With those expressions, the hierarchical distance between the sender and the addressee was put into writing. Even if the society of princes was clinging to the idea of a clear and never-changing system of ranks, reality was multifaceted, unstable, and ambiguous. As a result, finding the right forms for a letter was not an easy task. Which combination of epithets would best express the hierarchy between the hereditary prince of Brandenburg and the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg – ‘willing friend and uncle’, ‘willing friend and cousin’, or ‘most willing friend and cousin’?2
Generally, the easiest way to find a fitting phrase was copying the wording from a previous letter which had been received and accepted by the addressee. The genesis of ceremonial rules in early modern Europe was generally based on prejudices: what had happened once and had been accepted by all of the parties involved could serve as a model for similar events. Even if no-one could possibly keep track of all earlier cases, ceremonial norms arose from experiences and expectations. When it came to ceremonial contacts between courts, changes were most unwelcome – with the exception of willingly given, mutual, and consensual upranking. In ceremonial, reusing proven forms was the only reliable practice. Nevertheless, there were two major problems: the first and general issue was the unclear hierarchy in the society of princes. The second and very specific challenge was the data management. The individual composition of forms, titles, and epithets did not only depend on group memberships such as Crowned Heads, Prince Electors, Old Princes, and New Princes, but also on family relationship, title claims, political intentions, and tradition that had their own influence.
So how did the ducal court in Gotha know in 1733 how Frederick III should frame his 4640 signatures? In fact, the chancelleries of German courts kept handwritten volumous records, called Titulaturbücher (books of titles). Despite the name, these data collections served as reference books for all aspects of written ceremonial in the court. Besides the addresses and epithets – often both in German and in French – norms concerning the layout were registered. These included the position of the signature, the number of blank lines, the paper size, or the words that had to be written autographically by the princes themselves. All of these considerations could be understood as signs of social distinction. Besides these norms for out-bound letters, the scribes registered information on incoming mailing. Often these notes document single addresses that had been given in unestablished forms. When the next letter would arrive, the court could check whether the previous abnormal title had been given by mistake or on purpose, that is, to change ceremonial and hierarchies.
Following the early modern idea of a well-ordered and stable world, all these data were usually not collected alphabetically on index cards, but on the pages of portable handbooks, arranged in a hierarchical order: from the Roman Emperor down to individual members of the gentry.
In a world without wars of succession, birth of princely children, hereditary titles, a run for crowns, and rank claims, this system might have worked. But early modern reality underwent changes and was characterised by ambiguities and political changes. Consequently, the well-ordered reference books quickly turned into a mess. The limited space of a book was hardly capable of including all variations that occured in ceremonial practice. Even if the entries became more and more complex, the records were used for decades: writing a new compendium from scratch was just too much work. Therefore, the chancelleries had to deal with handbooks which gave a lot of historical information, but were confusing when it came to the current needs. The number of letters with new, unwelcome titles sent by courts was high.
In fact, German princes who received letters with unusual addresses usually did not make a fuss of it. As long as the change did not reoccur, it was usually automatically considered a scribers’ mistake. To be sure, the chancelleries sometimes added a slice of paper to the answer on which they asked for the reason of the new forms. Sometimes, the courts subsequently agreed to uprank each other and set new standards. This pragmatic way of dealing with potential ceremonial conflicts was typical for the interaction between German princes. Usually, they were not interested in getting into any troubles. However, when political tensions existed between the two correspondence partners, the ceremonial of chancelleries were handled in a less relaxed way: a missing epithet in the address could be sanctioned by a refusal of receiving the letter. The seal remained unbroken and the letter was returned to the sender. This of course was a harsh reaction that halted the flow of information. To avoid a lack of knowledge, many ill-titled messages were opened, read, and deposited in the archives, but left without reply.
The court in Gotha had to face these problems every day: letters had to be written and signed, incoming mail had to be checked, irregularities had to be evaluated. In 1733, when the hereditary prince of Brandenburg had sent his third letter using irregular titles, a councilor of Duke Frederick III just commented that ‘the crown prince does not know the titles, so no complaint should be made’.3 The Prussian lack of ceremonial knowledge, probably arising from an ill-kept Titulaturbuch, was nothing to be taken serious.
By Marian Hefter, University of Erfurt, Germany.
Marian Hefter is a member of the Gotha Research Centre of the University of Erfurt. His doctoral research focuses on ceremonial knowledge at German princes’ courts in the 17th and 18th century: among the ceremonial of chancelleries, also the diplomatic ceremonial, the ceremonial of courts, and the ceremonial of orders of chivalry are part of the research. After having been funded by a grant of the University of Erfurt, the thesis will be submitted in September 2023.
1 Landesarchiv Thüringen – Staatsarchiv Gotha, Geheimes Archiv, 5382.
2 ‘freundwilliger Oheimb’, ‘freundwilliger Vetter’, ‘freundwilligster Vetter’ (Landesarchiv Thüringen – Staatsarchiv Gotha, Geheimes Archiv, 4503 – letters of Prince Frederick of Prussia to Duke Frederick III of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg from 21st September 1732, 13th August 1733, and 7th October 1738).
3 ‘Der Chron Prinz weiß die titulatur nicht also hierin kein ursach […] zugeben’. (Landesarchiv Thüringen – Staatsarchiv Gotha, Geheimes Archiv, 4503)