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The Age of the Elites

Nicholas Henshall examines the politics of aristocratic culture in Europe between 1650 and 1750.

Alberlarle House (later Clarendon's House) in London's Piccadilly. An engraving of 1683. British Museum‘The material condition of the masses is the only thing that matters.’ This announcement, made in 1980 by Maurice Larkin, a professor of history at Edinburgh University, encapsulates the neglect since the 1960s of aristocratic culture in early modern Europe. Though historians have subsequently investigated its decline in the enlightened decades preceding the French Revolution, its rise has been largely ignored.

The period between 1650 and 1750 has two claims to uniqueness. First, lay and clerical landed grandees, who had long held a near-monopoly of political, social and economic power, now became the cultural elite as well. The commercial cities that created the Italian and Northern Renaissance had declined and were replaced as key cultural patrons by monarchs, princes, nobles, bishops and abbots. Second, in contrast to the political and religious convulsions immediately before the period and the socio-economic and political revolutions soon after it, most of the century between 1650 and 1750 was stable. A question is posed. Was its cultural splendour a sticking-plaster applied by elites to heal the body politic?

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