Diplomatic faux pas back in the day

by Michał Nowakowski

Present-day diplomacy can seem like a complex and obscure realm, with countless rules and customs that can easily bewilder aspiring diplomats. However, when we take a closer look at the requirements foreign envoys faced in the early modern era, we realize that things were even more complicated and formalized back then.

An excellent illustration of this is the mission of Stanisław Miński, a Polish diplomat who served as Sigismund III’s ambassador to Pope Clement VIII in the late sixteenth century. In his diplomatic manual, Miński described the various protocols and ceremonies he had to navigate during his stay at the papal court in Rome―offering a fascinating insight into the highly codified world of Renaissance diplomacy.

Miński’s text vividly demonstrates the multifaceted challenges that diplomats of that era had to overcome. They were expected, for instance, to know exactly how to interact with the pope, cardinals, other ambassadors, and Roman aristocracy. Each person had their own specific title, and diplomats had to know whom to seat higher, who should be allowed through doors first, and which rooms to escort their guests to based on their rank. Every action at the papal court was meticulously codified, with precise rules governing even the slightest movements during an official audience with the pope. A single misstep, such as a poorly executed bow, could result in embarrassment.

Given the plethora of these rules, it’s no surprise, that mistakes were made. One amusing anecdote that Miński relates in his manual concerns an unidentified Polish ambassador who unwittingly broke one of the basic rules of papal diplomacy. According to tradition, only clergy members were allowed to deliver the official speech before the pope during the first public audience. Secular diplomats were required to hire professional orators to perform this task on their behalf. Unfortunately, the Polish envoy, who was not a priest, was unaware of this convention and decided to give the speech himself. Although in every other respect he performed flawlessly, this simple mistake became the talk of the papal court and a source of great amusement for years to come. As Miński puts it, “to this day, they still laugh about it in Rome.” All we can do is sympathize with the unfortunate diplomat….

For further information on the subject, see:

Józef Korzeniowski, Stanisława Mińskiego (1563–1607) „Sposób odprawowania poselstwa”, „Archiwum Komisyi Historycznej” 5 (1889), p. 437–63.

Michał E. Nowakowski, Ambasador na rozdrożu. Świat wartości w poradnikach dyplomatycznych Pierwszej Rzeczypospolitej oraz ich europejski kontekst [Ambassador at the Crossroads. The World of Values in the Diplomatic Manuals of Poland-Lithuania and their European Context], Lublin 2023 [in print].

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