Instruments of Power: the States General and their archives 1576-1796.

In the period 1576-1796 the assembly of the States General was the highest constitutional body of the alliance of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands. Towards foreign countries and conquered regions it acted as sovereign power. The archives of the States-General from this period, which have a size of about 1200 m1, were created and used in order to exercise power in the Dutch republic and the rest of the world. They document that power and this world, not directly, but through the lens of their creators’ ideas, goals and ambitions. The assembly of the States General, their members, chancellors and secretaries did not represent the world as they would and could see it, but framed the documentary image of the power they exercised in the applicable regulations and the constitutional agreements the allies had made and recorded. The archives of the States-General are both representations and instruments of power, not only of political power, the power to manage and control developments in society, but also of memory power, the power to determine how that society is memorized. Order is a central instrument of power, not only because order is a prerequisite for control and monitoring, but also because order is the most characteristic expression of a culture. By consequence, the study of cultures that differ from ours, and the culture of the early modern history of Europe, asks for much tolerance for what is complex and incomprehensible. Uncritical application of our own classifications to the constitution and the archives of the ancien regime may erase what was precisely so characteristic for that time.


Theo Thomassen is professor of Archival Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He studied history in Leiden and received his PhD in archival science in Amsterdam. Recently, after more than 25 years of research, he published a book on the Dutch States General, the representative body of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces 1576-1796 and the archives of the States General as representations and instruments of their power.