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Mathias Mesenhöller

Translating Enlightenment into Courlandish. An Essay in the Actualisation of Fashionable Codes.

Towards the end of the 18th century the Duchy of Courland saw a fierce struggle over power and wealth between prince, matriculated nobility and non-noble pretenders. During this conflict, the nobility employed concepts and notions that were central to the discourse of enlightenment. Their appropriation since the middle of the century obeyed concrete incentives, namely to qualify for careers in foreign services, the preparation for estate participation – yet, most of all, it reflected the junction of elite status to discoursive competence, i. e. to an ability to converse over fashionable issues in fashionable terms in order to pass in aristocratic society.
When the politico-economic conflict escalated, the nobility’s whips »translated« the according rhetoric into a program of constitutional reformism. Their speech, though, adhered neither to a coherent system of ideas, nor to a consistent referential frame. Rather, it amalgamated categories, modes of reason, and vocabulary from traditional thought and various enlightenment provenances. Yet, it was just this hybridity that allowed the nobility to dicoursively dominate the duke as well as ambitious non-nobles, until the territory was annexed by Russia in 1795.

Kurz-Bio: Mathias Mesenhöller

Historiker, wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Geisteswissenschaftlichen Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas (GWZO), Leipzig. Forschungsschwerpunkte: Osteuropa, Modernisierung, Elitenwandel, Imperialgeschichte, Migration und Diaspora-Formation.

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