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In the Wings of Power: The Problem & Purveyors of Political Advice,1200-1800


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Our contemporary political world is said to be witnessing a crisis of expertise. Distrust towards those who offer advice, regardless of field - diplomacy, finance, business, education, and, notably in recent memory, public health - is at an all-time high, as intergovernmental organisations are denounced as technocracies, and specialised knowledge stigmatised as elitist, opaque, and out of touch with social realities. Yet such contempt, however justified, hamstrings our abilities to unpick and understand the channels through which power flows. How are decisions made, and who is making them? Who else is in the room where it happens? What is at stake for which interest groups? And on what legal, religious, customary, and intellectual resources and idioms do languages of political authority and advice draw?

These are the questions at the heart of this research seminar. Its focuses are the conceptions and practices of proffering advice in medieval and early modern Europe, when the matter of counsel itself was contested with particular vigour. Orienting our analytical gazes away from seats of power themselves and towards the institutions and cultures in which they were embedded, we ask and compare how past thinkers and actors addressed questions concerning the nature, timing, and rhetoric of decision-making and conflict management, highlighting how purveying political advice was a central institutional and legal, but also moral and intellectual problem across the period. We look at the instruments and mechanisms - ‘checks and balances’ - hat regulated power, trying to understand preoccupations of those involved in policing its exercise. We also situate traditions of decision-making, from conciliarism to parliamentarism, within delicate, centuries-long dances between temporal and spiritual authority, transparency and secrecy. To these ends, we will examine a wide range of sources, from the legal to the literary: mirrors for princes and political speeches, decrees and directives and correspondence. This course thus encourages its participants to reflect more fundamentally on questions of decision-making, regime change, and the place of expertise in the evolving and intertwined dyad of knowledge and power.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the specialisation as well as of the historiography of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the broader processes of political, social and cultural identity formation between about 1000-1800; awareness of problems of periodisation and impact of ‘national’ historiographical traditions on the field.

  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Europe 1000-1800, with a particular focus on the ability to analyse and evaluate primary sources from the period, if necessary with the aid of modern translations; ability to make use of relevant methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis to interpret sources in their textual and historical context.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. will acquire knowledge and understanding of the phenomena and problems of counsel, expertise, and deliberation across Europe (1200-1800), of its main contemporary sources, and of its historiography;

  2. will learn to think beyond the usual boundaries in time and space, that is across the traditional caesura in European history, and across the European world of Christendom and Islam;

  3. will learn to write an essay with a focus on one or more phenomena or problems of counsel, expertise, and deliberation and contextualise it/them in the broader diplomatic, economic or cultural (religious) context. The student will learn to reflect on the different approaches brought to problems of counsel, expertise, and deliberation chosen by specialists while at the same time to frame it in recent historiography on the topic;

  4. ResMA students will additionally learn to make a comparison between problems of counsel, expertise, and deliberation in different areas. They will also learn to reflect on the methodological challenges of comparative approaches.]


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. If you are not able to attend, you are required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If you do not comply with the aforementioned requirements, you will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)

measured learning objectives: 1-8, 9-15

  • Entry test

measured learning objectives: 4, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13-15

  • Oral presentation

measured learning objectives: 3-7, 8-15

  • Preparation bibliographical survey

measured learning objectives: 1, 2, 4, 7-9, 12, 14-15

  • Bibliographical research, including primary sources

  • measured learning objectives: 1-6, 8-15*


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Portfolio: 30%

  • Portfolio consists of the following components:

weekly commentaries on assigned reading

‘entry test’: in fact a reflection on assigned reading + preliminary sketch of ideas for the long essay (the one that constitutes 70% of the grade)

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

To read for the entry test, before the first course that is:

  • Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose (eds.), Political Advice: Past, Present—and Future (London: I. B. Tauris, 2021), ch. 1.

  • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

  • John M. Headley, The Emperor and His Chancellor: A Study of the Imperial Chancellery under Gattinara (Cambridge 1983 or later edition)


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.

General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.