In 1494, the king of France, Charles VIII (r. 1483-1498), marched his army into the Italian peninsula to conquer Naples, which fell under Spain’s sovereignty to fulfill Charles VIII’s claim to the throne. The king’s actions set off a series of wars across Europe and the Mediterranean known as the Italian Wars (1494-1559). Almost all countries of the region participated, including France, Spain, England, the Low Countries, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the various Italian principalities, to name the most prominent states involved. This explosion of multi-continental war was a catalyst for a dramatic increase in French diplomacy and the development of a network of ambassadors scattered across Europe and the Mediterranean region in order to navigate the numerous alliances that permeated the conflict. For instance, France maintained one permanent ambassador abroad in 1515 but had established at least ten by 1547. France’s diplomatic outreach only expanded after 1559 as France navigated a series of crises until 1714: a series of religious civil wars in France from 1562 to 1629, France’s entrance into the Thirty Years War from 1630 until 1648, another civil war in France known as The Fronde from 1648 to 1659, and finally the wars of Louis XIV from 1661 to 1714. Throughout these conflicts, the Franco-Spanish rivalry played a prominent role in shaping their trajectories, and France's diplomatic network provided an essential tool for the French court to navigate these challenges as well as counter the threat Spain's influence compounded onto them. The end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 represented the end of an epoch as Louis XIV placed a member of his Bourbon dynasty on the Spanish throne, cementing the transition of France’s primary rivalry from Spain to England.

Despite this dramatic increase in French diplomatic activity, the expanse of the kingdom's diplomatic geography has not been evaluated.1 Traditionally Europe's geo-political limits were considered to be constrained to the bounds of western Europe. Much of this interpretation is predicated on focusing entirely on the development of the permanent ambassador.2 But recent research has demonstrated that diplomatic and international relations were maintained in many forms beyond dependence on permanent ambassadors. Women, renegades (Christian converts to Islam in the service of a Muslim state), other go-betweens, and even enslaved people all played prominent roles in maintaining foreign relations between states. As part of this revision of Europe's geo-political history, we have learned that Europe's political partnerships transcended the realm in which reciprocal resident ambassadors existed.3 In other words, by revising our understanding of how diplomacy was practiced, it has become clear that the presence of resident ambassadors did not adequately represent the constraints of the geopolitical world of Europe or even any particular state.

Moreover, focusing on the network of diplomats and ambassadors does not explain how French rulers exploited it, and it definitely overlooks when rulers prioritized different parts of the globe outside of the diplomatic network. Mapping French Diplomacy will map all the letters from French rulers to foreign recipients including but not limited to diplomats, foreign rulers, and trade legations to analyze France’s changing foreign-policy priorities over time. In other sections of the introduction, such as "Sixteenth-Century Diplomats" and "Seventeenth-Century Diplomats," this project will investigate France's growing ambassadorial network—with caution not to overdraw conclusions—but to lay the foundation for the rest of the investigation Focusing on the monarchs’ letters is useful because diplomatic correspondence was rarely a personal or private act. Instead, it was a public act that represented the interests of the court. For instance, almost all royal letters carried two signatures: one from the secretary and the other from the ruler.

Mapping French Diplomacy will substantially contribute to the historiography of French foreign policy during the early modern period. Historians have treated the Wars of Religion in Europe (generally 1559 to 1648) as transformative to European society and specifically diplomacy. During this time, according to Garrett Mattingly for instance, European diplomats seemed to forget they belonged to a larger European community (168). And for many, such as Peter Wilson, a new Westphalian system that offered a “new charter for European relations” was produced out of these tumultuous years (752). The period produced a new, modern system out of a diplomatic catastrophe. In addition, this system comprised only the powers of Western Europe, excluding much of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire until later in the eighteenth century due to the lack of reciprocal embassies. French historians have similarly envisioned this period as part of the birth of modern diplomacy after a dramatic collapse during the Wars of Religion. For instance, William Church and numerous others credited Louis XIII’s chief minister Cardinal Richelieu for establishing a modern realpolitik policy of placing state interests above religious interest in foreign policy. Mapping French Diplomacy will argue that French diplomacy followed a common pattern over the period. The policies of Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV appear less as novel introductions than as outgrowths of the policies of their predecessors. In other words, at least in France, the period did not usher in a novel, modern international system. By focusing on letters rather than permanent embassies, this project will indicate that the realm of French foreign policy was a truly trans-regional and trans-continental activity long before the eighteenth century.

To date, no project has investigated the details of French foreign policy between 1494 and 1714 beyond synthetic surveys primarily because the scale of the project produces too much to read. Mapping French Diplomacy replaces traditional humanistic investigative techniques driven by reading each letter to find patterns with visualizations of letter reicipients and mapping destinations of royal letters to find the patterns and drive the investigation. As Ruth Ahnert et al. indicated, mapping technologies can contribute to humanistic inquiry in a similar way as aerial photography contributed to archeology: it might sacrifice resolution and detail, but it can recognize “large-scale patterns and over-looked features.”4 Toward this end, I have been inspired by The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, which has substantially revised our understanding of the book trade in France through metadata analysis and digital tools such as mapping. Using metadata from tens of thousands of letters, Mapping French Diplomacy will be able to demonstrate French diplomatic priorities by locating the patterns associated with whom the French rulers were writing and when they were writing to them. Correspondence was how the business of foreign policy was conducted. Tracking correspondence shows where that business was most intense and most sparse. After this process recognizes and depicts patterns that would otherwise be missed due to investigative bias (for instance overlooking the letters to Morocco or the Ottoman Empire due to a focus on traditional Western European diplomacy), I will then apply traditional humanistic reading techniques to contextualize these patterns in the narrative in conjunction with the map. Event buttons styled as hyperlinks in the text will reshape the data on the map when clicked to highlight that point in the narrative, literally permitting the reader to visualize the argument as they read it. A goal of this project is to demonstrate the geographic expansiveness of France’s diplomatic community and how it changed over time. The leaflet.js maps are the tool that permits such an analysis.

Mapping French Diplomacy re-evaluates France's geo-political world and priorities during this dynamic period in the form of a born-digital monograph. It is focused on reconstructing France's geo-political world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by mapping all the letters that French rulers wrote to foreign recipients. In doing so, we can visualize which regions and states were at the forefront of French rulers' considerations—and by extension the French court's since foreign policy and diplomacy were never individual pursuits.5 The project will begin with the Italian wars (1494-1559) and extend to the end of the Wars of Louis XIV (r.1643-1715). During this period, French foreign policy was predominated by its rivalry with the Habsburgs and specifically the Spanish Habsburgs.

By mapping these letters, this project will produce a visual representation of France’s international priorities—what I refer to as its diplomatic geography—and how it changed over time. I will make two primary arguments in the project. One, the period from 1494 to 1715 represented a single cohesive period of political history, during which France maintained a standard set of priorities that were structural to their foreign policy system: the maintenance of cross-confessional alliances with the Protestant powers of Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Two, the region comprising the core of France’s foreign-policy priorities—or France’s diplomatic geography—was truly multi-continental, including Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.


1. There has been important research in French diplomatic history during the period. Lucien Bély, Espions et Ambassadeurs Au Temps de Louis XIV (Paris: Fayard, 1990), Link, for instance, demonstrated the importance of diplomats to forming and international community in the late seventeenth century. Ellen R. Welch, A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017),Link, has demonstrated the importance of non-typical environments to diplomatic activities. De Lamar Jensen, “French Diplomacy and the Wars of Religion,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 5, no. 2 (October 1, 1974): 23–46, Link, described to a limited extent the growth of French foreign policy during the Wars of Religion. There is much work on France's and indeed Europe's diplomatic history, which are both experiencing a resurgence of interest, but we still lack lack a full understanding of the geo-political realm France constructed and how it changed throughout this period.

2. See for instance, Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (Cosimo Classics, 2009), Link; and M. S. Anderson, The Origins of the Modern European State System, 1494-1618 (Longman Group, 1998), Link, for the traditional interpretation.

3. Tracey A. Sowerby and Jan Hennings, Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c.1410-1800 (Routledge, 2017), Link; Eric Dursteler, Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity, and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), especially chap. 6, Link; E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), Link; Emrah Safa Gürkan, “Espionage in the 16th Century Mediterranean: Secret Diplomacy, Mediterranean Go-Betweens and the Ottoman Habsburg Rivalry” (Ph.D., Georgetown University, 2012), Link; Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), Link; John Watkins, “Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 38, no. 1 (January 2008): 1–14, Link; Maartje van Gelder and Tijana Krstic, eds., “Cross-Confessional Diplomacy and Diplomatic Intermediaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean,” special issue, Journal of Early Modern History 19 (2015), Link.

4. Ruth Ahnert et al.,The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 91, Link.

5. See for instance, James B. Collins, “State Building in Early-Modern Europe: The Case of France,” Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (July 1, 1997): 605n2, Link.

Cite this page:
Nathan Michalewicz, "Introduction," Mapping French Diplomacy: Royal Correspondence and Diplomatic Geography 1494-1715,