Medieval concepts of meeting all had strong connotations of fighting and sexual intercourse, thus depicting both ends of the continuum of possibilities when people get close: they make love or war. This corresponds to relationships characterized by rather unrestrained enmity or congeniality, possibly in rapid alternation. Meetings held by ruling ‘free men’ were known under several names such as ‘thing,’ ‘ding’ or ‘(ge)moot.’ These men always came armed and made decisions by clashing weapons or groaning, respectively expressions of approval and rejection. In cases of doubt, public man-to-man combat was one of the oldest and most wide-spread methods used for settling conficts. The outcome of these ‘juridical duels’ was conceived as a divine judgement. For many centuries, meeting regulations contained numerous stipulations referring to violent disruptions to order such as fighting, knife pulling, glass throwing, and bearing arms. In nineteenth-century England, the word meeting was known as a euphemism for a duel. Gradually, as the fight about communal as well as conflicting interests turned into a battle with words only, connotations of violence were removed from the concept of meeting. Particularly in the struggle for recognition of the freedom of meeting for all citizens of a state, the concept aquired the more [End Page 446] specialized meaning of coming together for common discussion and decision making.
Wilbert Van Vree’s book is full of this kind of interesting details and trends. It presents a history of meetings and meeting manners via a number of ‘cases’ and moments selected for representing significant changes in western societies. It reports the meeting manners of the medieval, agrarian societies dominated by warriors and priests. It deals with the ‘courtization’ of meetings during the Renaissance. It explores the developments in meeting behavior at times in which courtiers as a ruling group were substituted for parliamentarians and when business entrepeneurs increasingly tended to become professional meeting holders.
Van Vree’s perspective is built upon Norbert Elias’s theory of civilizing processes: the history of meetings is considered within the context of a long-term process of expanding and increasingly dense networks of interdependency. He shows how meetings and ‘meeting regimes’ expanded from concerning the administration of the law, preparations for war, and the establishment of peace, to controlling taxation, water boards, trade, industry, social services, and many other activities and problems stemming from the extension and differentiation of the chains of actions. Special attention goes to the connection between changes in meeting regimes and the pacification of societies via the monopolization of the use of violence in the hands of the state. Prior to state formation, corresponding to the relatively short and little differentiated series of transactions, the tendency to solve problems by discussion and agreement was, in general, relatively weak. Particularly when tensions mounted, the tendency to resort to violence was strong. Only where organized violence was monopolized over extensive areas, the danger of physical attack diminished and allowed persuasion, argumentation, negotiation and compromise to blossom. In these pacified areas, rules of conduct were sanctioned with a degree of generality and durability, which made it possible to accept them as ‘objective’ rules, as ‘laws’. In a chapter on the meeting rules developed in the Protestant Reform movement, Van Vree argues that the formulation of these rules as ethical norms or laws of God rather than as worldly wisdom or practical requirements for social exchange, helped to spread a stricter and broader meeting discipline among middle and lower classes.
The Dutch Republic is presented as an early example of a state in which the nobility lost their leading position as they became subordinate to merchant patricians. These new leading groups had to treat differences of opinion and conflicts with greater care and discipline. In contrast to monarchies in which the king had the power to separate conflicting factions, any such higher authority was absent in the Dutch Republic. Even the stadholder of the...