Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

How to Vote

The Polish royal election of 1573, as imagined by Jan Matejko (d. 1893)
On UK Election Day (which on this occasion has been awaited for the unusually long span of five full years), what do our late medieval and Renaissance forbearers tell us about how to vote?

Although we think of it as a period of mighty monarchies, 15th and 16th Europe was in fact full of elections and voting. The hundreds of bishops in Latin Christendom, for example, were all elected by their cathedral chapters: the canons would hear a solemn Mass, gather in the chapter house and vote. If they were ‘inspired by the Holy Spirit’ (in practice meaning if the result had been negotiated or fixed in advance) the chapter would unanimously acclaim a single candidate. Alternatively, they could hold a ballot (‘per scrutinium’) or appoint a subcommittee to make the decision (‘per comprossimum’). Republics such as Florence or Venice, meanwhile, had a constant flow of elections to office, with elaborate voting procedures involving beans, silver balls, and giant urns.

The pope in Rome was of course elected, by cardinals who were locked in the Sistine Chapel, with the Botticelli frescos and their own make-shift beds, until they reached a majority verdict. Papal elections in the Renaissance were characterised by the electoral capitulation – a formal list of promises which the cardinals would make the successful candidate swear to deliver, before formally electing him. (Not being carved in stone or enshrined in legislation, pace the UK party leaders, these were always transgressed).

And even in monarchies, there were plentiful and often momentous elections. The kings of Poland, Hungary, Bohemia and Sweden were elected throughout the Renaissance period, as was the Holy Roman Emperor himself. A Polish royal election, for example, such as that of 1492, involved the 40 or so members of the royal council assembling at Piotrków castle with ample numbers of armed troops, ‘conferring’ for several weeks, and only when a successful candidate emerged as a result of those negotiations did the council proceed to a formal oral vote, in the castle Hall. Then there were fireworks, feasting in Kraków, and a lavish coronation.


What these varieties of 15C and 16C European elections have in common is a conviction that all the important issues had to be thoroughly negotiated, and agreed, by the key players before proceeding to a vote – the purpose of which was partly ceremonial, or symbolic. In that sense, the UK 2015 election campaign – which has been characterised by negotiations and posturing between possible allies, well in advance of the actual vote – has had something of a Renaissance echo to it.