HomeNaturalisation and legitimation of power (1300-1800)

HomeNaturalisation and legitimation of power (1300-1800)

Naturalisation and legitimation of power (1300-1800)

Naturalisation et légitimation des pouvoirs (1300–1800)

Naturalisierung und legitimation der macht (1300–1800)

An attempt of comparative history

Entreprise d'histoire comparée

Versuch einer vergleichenden geschichte

*  *  *

Published on Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Ces deux colloques ambitionnent de cerner de manière collective et interdisciplinaire les différents usages du concept de naturalité en Europe entre 1300 et 1800. L'objet est de réaliser une synthèse collective d'histoire comparée sur le sujet.



To function efficiently, any power and domination has to prove its legitimacy, and the best way to do that is to prove its obviousness. Most modern research dedicated to the analysis of mechanisms of power seeks to show, to various extents, the necessary participation in them of the dominated classes and groups of people. They latter tolerate domination up to a certain point, and even sometimes participate to its conservation and reproduction.

What are the mechanisms that permit such a situation? In practice, manipulation by dominant classes and groups, and the adhesion of the dominated rely on processes which are difficult to analyse precisely because they are rooted in psychology and the symbolic, and, therefore, in something inscrutable.

Pierre Bourdieu, for example, argued that the main characteristic of symbolic power is its reliance on a particular kind of duplicity, on the fact that it is known and recognised because unknown and unconscious. Its strength and the adhesion to it rely on the feeling of its naturalness and unchangeability. In order to work, a socio-political order does best to avoid recalling the struggles and the negotiations between different forces which preceded its establishment. Instead it has a clear interest in showing (and not demonstrating) the easiness, the self-evidence of its imposition. In other words, any power has an interest in naturalising its existence. Like symbolic power, naturalness articulates a given effect visible to everybody and the mechanism (naturalisation) which produces it but is hidden and unconscious.

Today the naturalisation, the ‘essentialisation’ of human and social relations passes through a misuse of life sciences (sometimes described as ‘scientistic’), but even more the advent of technical-scientific discourses, one can observe that this way to explain the socio-political is used in various different periods and places all around the world.

It would be impossible to point out precisely the original moment, that gave birth to the concept of ‘naturalness.’ The concept is rooted in the long-term history of human thought, made up of continuums, disruptions, burials, and renewals.

That said, the use of ‘naturalness’ was constant during the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Times (1300-1800). The concept possesses several specificities due notably to the emergence and the shaping of the European dynastic states, their institutions, their socio-economic systems, and their ruling technics (e.g. military organisation, permanent taxation systems). During this period, the very modalities of use of ‘naturalness’ changed. From abstract reflection limited to ecclesiastical circles, ‘naturalness’ was subsequently used to support discourses and practices of government and policymaking. These participated in the emergence of politics as an independent ‘field’ in a society which had until then been shaped by the ‘institution englobante’ (Le Goff) of the church of the Middle Ages.

From the thirteenth century, scholastic reflexion and (re)formulation of the concept of ‘nature’ (from which naturalness proceeds) fostered a ‘naturalised’ conception of powers, notably by use of ancient theoretical writings on nature and politics (Aristotelian, Augustinian, Ciceronian), as well as their dissemination (in Latin and even more in vernacular) to European princes and at their courts. If the Aristotelian approach saw the ‘naturalness’ of political communities as the source of some forms of democracy, it also made possible to justify some processes of coercion and domination, especially when it was associated with complementary interpretations of the concept (Augustinian: institutions palliate the disorder created by the Fall, that is to say the natural state of humankind; Ciceronian: human beings naturally refuse to form political communities; they have to be forced to do so by the use of reason and rhetoric). Since the seventeenth century, the opposition nature/social organisation revivified by the invention of the natural state of human society which leads to the necessity of social organisation (Hobbes, Locke), and, afterwards, to the denunciation of domination as an artificial mean (Rousseau).

This reflexion on naturalness explicitly recalled the bond between human kind and nature. Sometimes hastily imagined to be in opposition to culture, nature is not a raw and timeless entity. Understanding the uses of naturalness will therefore allow us to improve our perception of the dualism between nature and culture the better to question its hegemony in our understanding of the social world. It will ultimately help to sharpen our understanding of the ontologies and cosmologies of the medieval societies which were, as many non-occidental societies are today, deeply different from our models even though they contributed to shape them.

Wishing to overcome the gap between a Middle Ages imagined as fervently devoted to rituals and symbols and a modern period/modernity supposed to mark the advent of Realpolitik after 1648, our ambition is to restore continuities often denied by excessively teleological approach to the history of power and politics, without underestimating the existence of genuine ruptures. Even if historians consider a discrete period, they are nonetheless soon obliged to face a multiplicity of forms and uses of the concept of ‘naturalness’. Only a comparative and interdisciplinary study of this phenomenon seems to be able to identify it. Nonetheless, an approach of this kind has yet to be attempted.

The aim of these two joint-workshops (at the University of Luxembourg, 28–29 November 2019, and at the Austrian Academy of Science, Vienna, 2–3 April 2020) is to study the concept of ‘naturalness’ from a perspective which is diachronic (1300–1800), interdisciplinary, and comparative (at the scale of the European states), the better to propose a nuanced broad vision of the concept. The analysis will focus both on the mechanisms of power at their various levels (courts, chancelleries, cities, representative assemblies, etc.), on alternative experiments, particularly in the religious sphere (papacy, religious communities, councils), and on discourses that convey a vision of the world and a conception of power (religious treaties, politics, courteous literature), in order to propose a nuanced overview of the use of “Naturalness”.

These events build on the work of the FNR/CORE (Luxembourg) project LUXDYNAST, Europe and the House of Luxembourg. Governance, Delegation and Participation between Region and Empire (2015–2018), which considered the construction of the domination of the Luxembourg dynasty between 1308 and 1437 over a vast and complex set of territories requiring a careful balance between global thinking and local action and the implementation of appropriate strategies; and the project GREMIA. Grey Eminences in Action: Personal Structures of Informal Decision-Making at Late Medieval Courts (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2019–2022), which aims to understand the personal structures of informal decision-making in late medieval Europe.

A collaborative publication of the various contributions is envisaged in the long term. In order to achieve this collectively, we wish to maintain a rich dialogue between the various participants before, during and after the two conferences. To do that, we will ask that a working version of each intervention be sent at least 15 days before each conference so that other participants can read it and fully participate in the discussions. Each working session will also have one or two respondents in order to stimulate, relaunch and sustain the debates. In addition, a private discussion group will be opened on Facebook to initiate and extend discussions.

The proposed papers could address the following topics:

1. The way that lexicons and discourses on the ‘naturalness’ of dominant classes, groups, and institutions are formed through space and time (lexical choices and transformations; rhetorical processes, e.g. analogies between micro-aspects of naturalness –the human body– and macro-aspects –the state represented as a human body; relations between Latin and vernacular translations, etc.). It will be also the occasion to understand better this space of communication in which our sources emerged. These include normative texts, ‘mirrors for princes,’ theological and philosophical treatises, sermon collections, the lives of saints, correspondence, chronicles, courtly literature, etc. This thematic will highlight the discursive and rhetorical practices, the links between words and their textual and socio-political contexts;

2. The foundation narratives used by the dominant classes, groups, and institutions in order to legitimate their use of different forms of coercion on other classes, groups, and institutions. The effect of naturalness aims above all to hide the foundation of the domination which always seems to be the result of violence and the produce of a contingency troubling/challenging any power in his quest for legitimacy. We will focus here on the forms given to the discourses in order to overcome this founding moment;

3. The existing dynamics between different discursive and lexical forms of the ‘naturalness’ of powers, and the bureaucratic and institutional practices install the ‘naturalness’ in a normative daily routine. The appearance of bureaucratic institutions (or rather proto-bureaucratic) gathering resources was often justified by ‘naturalness’ in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Times. The argument worked as a strategy allowing normalising these institutions, their practices and the behaviours that their officers tried to arouse at the subjects;

4. The naturalisation of relations of domination also has an impact on those most unseen human relations, in the gestures and the un-spoken attitudes which rhythm everyday life, in the attitudes towards the body: towards one’s own body and bodies of the others, in the control of one’s body and that of others. It is here a long-term late medieval and early modern process of domestication of the bodies (Elias), which also encountered resistances. In this section, we will therefore focus on ways and modalities of naturalizing relationships with bodies through texts (especially gender discourse supports), objects, attributes, gestures, and even through medical and surgical practice;

5. The way that ‘naturalness’ is used by classes, groups, and institutions, which had a lesser power, and even very few (e.g. rural and urban communities). These actors were also in quest of legitimacy towards the dominant classes, groups, and institutions. The fashioned a multiplicity of strategies in order to dialogue, negotiate, and fight, between the reuse of the dominant discourse on naturalness of powers until the claim of the non-naturalness of domination.

Submission guidelines

Proposals (an abstract of 1500 signs max. and a short bio-bibliographical presentation) can be send to loiseadde@yahoo.fr and Jonathan.Dumont@oeaw.ac.at

before the 15 September 2019.

Organisation committee

  • Dr. Eloïse Adde (LAMOP, Université Paris 1 Sorbonne–CNRS, FR)
  • Dr. Jonathan Dumont (Austrian Academy of Science, AT)
  • Prof. Michel Margue (University of Luxembourg, LU)
  • Doz. Dr. Andreas Zajic (Austrian Academy of Science, AT)

Scientific committee 

  • Dr. Eloïse Adde (LAMOP, Université Paris 1 Sorbonne–CNRS, FR)
  • Dr. Jonathan Dumont (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, AT)
  • Prof. Michel Margue (Université du Luxembourg, LU)
  • Doz. Dr. Andreas Zajic (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, AT)
  • Prof. Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin (Université de Lille, FR)
  • Prof. Christina Lutter (Universität Wien, AT)
  • Prof. Gilles Lecuppre (Université catholique de Louvain, BE)
  • Dr. Cathleen Sarti (Johann Gütemberg Universität – Mayence, DE)
  • Ass. Prof. Daniela Tinkova (Université Charles – Prague, CZ)


W. BLOCKMANS, « Autocratie ou polyarchie ? La lutte pour le pourvoir politique de Flandre de 1482 à 1492, d’après des documents inédits », Bulletin de la Commission royale d’Histoire, t. 140, 1974, p. 257–368.

P. BOURDIEU, « Sur le pouvoir symbolique », Revue des Annales E.S.C., t. 32/3, 1977, p. 405–411.

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C.J. NEDERNMAN, « Nature, Sin and the Origins of Society : The Ciceronian Tradition in Medieval Political Thought », Journal of the History of Ideas, t. 49, 1988, p 3-26.

G. POST, « The Naturalness of Society and the States », in ID., Studies in Medieval Legal Thought. Public Law and the State, 1100–1322, Princeton, 1964, p. 494–561.

Natural order : historical studies of scientific culture, éd. S. SHAPIN, B. BARNES, Beverly Hills, 1979.

W. ULLMANN, Medieval Political Thought, Harmondsworth, 1975, p. 167–184.

M. VAN DER LUGT, « L’autorité morale et normative de la nature au Moyen Âge. Essai comparatif et introduction », La nature comme source de la morale au Moyen Âge, éd. ID., Florence, 2014, p. 3–40.


  • Luxembourg City, Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
  • Vienna, Austria


  • Sunday, September 15, 2019


  • naturalité, naturalness, naturlichkeit


  • Jonathan Dumont
    courriel : jonathan [dot] dumont [at] oeaw [dot] ac [dot] at
  • Éloïse Adde
    courriel : eloise [dot] adde [at] usaintlouis [dot] be

Information source

  • Jonathan Dumont
    courriel : jonathan [dot] dumont [at] oeaw [dot] ac [dot] at


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Naturalisation and legitimation of power (1300-1800) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, https://doi.org/10.58079/12wo

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