Terms Matter

Terms matter, especially in matters of war and diplomacy.  A ‘capitulation’, the term itself derived from the points or ‘heads’ (caput) in an agreement, can mean a formal act of surrender, or an agreement by one nation giving special privileges to residents from another, or a simple treaty, or even a simple listing of the various points or heads of a document – hence ‘recapitulation’ – with no diplomatic meaning at all.  When a simple misunderstanding might mean surrendering your citizens to the enemy rather than obtaining special privileges for them, paying attention to the terms you’re using matters.

One of the first challenges for this project has therefore been to agree on a list of common or uniform terms which we will ensure that we are all talking about the same thing.  But how to choose what they will be?  Once answer might be to use the same terms that early modern diplomats, politicians, lawyers and soldiers did, but this has its own problems.  Not only are we dealing in multiple languages, including French, German, Italian, Dutch and Latin, but as this example suggests, it was not unknown for the same term to describe different things, or for the same thing to be described with multiple terms.  Can we say, for example, exactly what the difference was between a treaty, agreement, compact, convention, capitulation, covenant and alliance, and did they even remain constant between 1530 and 1870?  The only answer seems to be to start afresh, to find the most basic and functional terms possible, and to build up from there.

Given how much of our project and research will focus on the agreements made between states and individuals, and the states and individuals themselves, our first and most important job has been to find suitable terms for both.

We have started with the basic building block of everything else, the people making the agreements.  Since they might be sovereign states, autonomous or semi-sovereign princes or cities, major companies such as the British East India Company or private military officers and contractors, we have decided to use the legal term ‘party’ rather than ‘actor’ or ‘agent’, which covers anyone who can make a contract or agreement for military resources.  This also means that we can borrow from legal terms to talk about ‘counter-parties’, the person or state with whom an agreement is made, or ‘third parties’, where two parties make an agreement about a state or individual who is not a signatory to that agreement.

The next building block is the agreement itself, by which parties enter a structure a relationship with others.  ‘Treaties’ are fine for talking about various types of diplomatic arrangements, but they don’t cover the more private arrangements made between states and individual soldiers or merchants, while terms such as ‘agreement’ are too generic and don’t capture the formal (and formalised) nature of these documents.  We have therefore decided to use the term ‘contracts’ to cover all these arrangements, which not only aligns us with the legal terms we have already used but also allows us to borrow further from the legal lexicon to talk about ‘contractors’ who enter agreements to provides goods or services to ‘contractees’, and to use more specialised language of principals and agents or brokers and actors to describe particular types of contracting relationships between parties.


With that basic hurdle of terminology out of the way, we will be ready in future weeks to move on to define other terms to help create a foundation for our project.