The Emperor’s Diet or the Empire’s Reichstag? Sixteenth-Century English Wordplay on the ‘Diet’ and its Heuristic Use

On 10 January 1547, Thomas Thirlby, first and last bishop of Westminster and Henry VIII’s envoy to Emperor Charles V, informed his master ‘that th[e] Emperour gothe to Ulmes [Ulm], thear to take the diet for the cure of his gowt, and as some hathe said, He well have a Diet there for the cure of Germany.’1 In this witty wordplay on the homonymy of the word ‘diet’, Thirlby relayed news about the emperor’s health problems and his issues with the Schmalkaldic League, an association of Protestant Imperial Estates. The solution was represented by the same word ‘diet’ in both cases, albeit with different meanings. What was proof of eloquence and humanist rhetoric in this primary source, however, today presents certain heuristic challenges for historians who encounter the word ‘diet’ in edited sources.

In the sixteenth century, ‘diet’ could refer to a person’s nutrition or digestion—and, related to that, their salary—or describe an ‘assembly’ in political contexts, especially an assembly of Estates in the Holy Roman Empire.2 The distinction between the meanings of ailments, remuneration, and politics is hardly a problem in the context of individuals sources. More problematic, however, is an observation in the Calendars of State Papers, a project which presents the archival State Papers in printed and abbreviated form. The Calendars not only speak of a ‘diet’ when referring to a Reichstag (Imperial Diet) in the Holy Roman Empire, but apply the same term to the entire range of assemblies of Imperial Estates in the sixteenth century.3 Thus the term ‘diet’ does not refer exclusively to the Reichstag, but can be used for any kind of assembly of Imperial Estates, from Imperial Kreis assemblies (Reichskreistage) and colloquies on confessional matters (Religionsgespräche) to the Prince–Electors’ meetings (Kurfürstentage), including gatherings (Bundestage) of the Schmalkaldic League.

But if one was linguistically equal to the other from the English perspective, can we actually examine the English reception of the Reichstag, as I intend to do in my Ph.D. project on ‘English Envoys at the Imperial Diet in the Sixteenth Century’? Did English sources in the sixteenth century really not distinguish the Reichstag diet from other diets? During my four-month research fellowship at the German Historical Institute London, I set out to trace the term ‘diet’ in the political sense of an Imperial Diet (Reichstag) in sources from Henry VIII’s later reign, and the so-called mid-Tudor period in particular.

The first and often only access to this decisive group of sources, the State Papers, is provided by the Calendar of State Papers, multi-volume reference works whose entries are listed in chronological order and accompanied by varying degrees of description, from mere dates and summaries to archival classifications or even full transcriptions.4 One of the early editors of the Calendars, William B. Turnbull, who produced volumes on the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, claimed that the Calendars offered ‘a tolerably fair general outline’ of documents that ‘contain the essence of the entire Foreign correspondence of England during the Reign of Queen Mary, as preserved in the State Papers Office’.5 This ‘calendarization’ of English sources from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century is considered to be one of the ‘cornerstones of our medieval and early modern historiography’.6 Not always, but often, the publication of the Calendars prompted a reorganization of archival records in the State Papers Office or Public Record Office,7 resulting in bundles of files that still followed this anachronistic order.

Furthermore, these Calendars, which are usually carefully compiled but occasionally standardized in different ways, provide not only a quick overview but also the basis of searchable databases such as Gale’s State Papers Online.8 These, in turn, have a monopoly on access to the sources. Thus the text generated by the modern editors of the Calendars largely defines how we today encounter source materials from the past, so that the nineteenth-century understanding of sources is reproduced even in the digital age. It is precisely this anachronistic interpretation of the sources collected in a project such as the Calendars that can lead researchers astray—or at least down some unnecessary byways. The example of the ‘diet’ as a form of assembly in the Holy Roman Empire shows this clearly.

When I tried to find out whether ‘diet’ was a term used exclusively for the specific institution of the Reichstag or inclusively to cover the diversity of Imperial assemblies, I found a problem of archival description in the Calendars, rather than ignorance on the part of the sixteenth-century contemporaries. Often it was only the nineteenth-century editor of the Calendar who chose to call an assembly a ‘diet’. The terms used by people in the sixteenth century were much more nuanced. They distinguished clearly (with exceptions, of course) between the Imperial Diet/Reichstag, which was already institutionally well understood in 1540, on the one hand, and other forms of assembly in the Empire on the other.

I will illustrate this with two examples. First, when theological discussions between Imperial princes and theologians of the old and new confessions were first held in Hagenau and Worms in 1540–1, and later in Regensburg, the religious discussions are called ‘diets’ in the Calendar – just as the Imperial Diet then also held in Regensburg. The Calendar speaks of the Imperial representative’s opening speech delivered at the ‘Diet of Worms’, whereas the original Latin of the source speaks of a ‘colloquium’. English reports of the assemblies did make the distinction, however. In his letters, the English envoy to the Imperial court distinguished between the ‘assembly’ in Worms/Hagenau and the ‘diete’ in Regensburg.9

And second, according to the Calendar, there was also a ‘diet’ in 1546—a ‘Diet of the Protestants’, as it was called in the detailed English translations of the original Latin letters written by the agent Christopher Mundt, who worked for the English crown in the Empire.10 In the Calendar entry of his letter of 3 March 1546, the term ‘diet’ is used five times.11 Yet the Latin text distinguishes between two entirely different assemblies. Where Mundt was writing about a meeting (Bundestag) of the Schmalkaldic League, he used the term ‘conventus Protestantium’, whereas for the Reichstag he used the Latin term ‘comitia’. Only the Calendar chose ‘diet’ for both instances.

There are many further examples to show that the early modern understanding of the differences between the Empire’s various assemblies was much more differentiated in terms of concepts and content than the later interpretations by the editors of the Calendar.

This is also substantiated by Thomas Thirbly’s wordplay of 1546 with the different meanings of ‘diet’, highlighting the existence of a clear and specialized conception of a ‘diet’ as a Reichstag. Similar analogies between the various ‘diets’ for the recovery of the emperor and ‘diets’ for the pacification of the Empire point to a consolidated conceptual understanding of the ‘diet’ as a Reichstag, since otherwise the corresponding formulations and the political message they conveyed would not be understood by recipients in England.

Granted, the term ‘diet’ also appears in early modern English primary sources to describe other assemblies, but such renderings are mostly due to a lack of differentiation or comprehension on the part of individual envoys. In most cases, however, an examination of the original source and who produced it shows that contemporaries were well aware of what a ‘diet’ was (and what it was not) — something that the Calendars obscure.

My archival work in England taught me that the distinction between different forms of Imperial assembly was in fact more present to those who produced sources in the sixteenth century than to the nineteenth-century editors. This discovery underscores the importance of working with primary sources, not just for the heuristic base of my approach, but really for anyone working with the Calendars or similar editions that can obscure rather than reveal the diversity of the sources.

The featured image contains the digitised cover page of one of the Calendar of State Papers Foreign. Material in the public domain, provided by the Internet Archive.

  1. The National Archives, Kew (TNA), SP 1/228, Thirlby to Paget, 10 Jan. 1547, fos. 41r–42v, at 41r. []
  2. See Duncan Hardy, ‘Tage (Courts, Councils and Diets): Political and Judicial Nodal Points in the Holy Roman Empire, c.1300–1550’, German History, 36/3 (2018), 381–400. []
  3. See Helmut Neuhaus, Reichsständische Repräsentationsformen im 16. Jahrhundert: Reichstag, Reichskreistag, Reichsdeputationstag (Berlin, 1982). []
  4. See Geoffrey R. Elton, England 1200–1640 (London, 1969), 66; Antonia Moon, ‘Catalogues and other Finding Aids’, in Claire Loffman and Harriet Phillips (eds.), A Handbook of Editing Early Modern Texts (London, 2020), 15–19, at 18. See also the overview of the history of the Calendars in Natalie Mears, ‘State Papers and Related Collections’, in Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis (eds.), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources (Abingdon, 2016), 17–34; C. S. Knighton, ‘The Calendars and their Editors, 1856–2006’, in State Papers Online, [accessed 14 Dec. 2022]. In addition to the Research Guides of the National Archives, the Prefaces by the editors of the Calendars since the 1860s are particularly informative about the aims and standards of these volumes of records. But the guidelines of the Master of the Rolls contain no instructions on how to proceed with translations. []
  5. William B. Turnbull, ‘Preface’, in id. (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Foreign: Mary I 1553–1558 (London, 1861), p. vii. []
  6. Knighton, ‘The Calendars and their Editors, 1856–2006’. []
  7. See Elton, England, 72. []
  8. See Gale/Cengage Group, State Papers Online: Early Modern Government in Britain and Europe [accessed 30 Oct. 2022]. []
  9. TNA SP 1/163, Pate to Privy Council, 12 Nov. 1540, fo. 219r. []
  10. On Christopher Mundt see now Jonas Bechtold, ‘Divergierende Formalitätszuschreibungen und die Skalierbarkeit (in)formeller Akteure der Diplomatie: Christopher Mundt als englischer Gesandter am Reichstag 1566’, Frühneuzeit-Info, 33 (2022), 17–31. []
  11. TNA, SP 1/214, Mundt to Paget, 3 Mar. 1546, fo. 211r–v. []

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