Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Patrons and Clients

Here in Nantes, I’m currently spending my days reading in the archives of the Affaires Étrangères. My dissertation will hopefully deal with French travel to the Levant in the early years of the nineteenth century, and arrangements for travel were generally made through the embassies and consulates in the countries that one was visiting. Travelers found passage by paying for space on commercial ships or postal lines, and they often stayed in convents or with ambassadors. In the days before travel agencies, going for a sojourn was both more exciting and more difficult. Maybe it’s better to call these people vagabonds.

So, I’m reading old letters of introduction. Many of the letters are from important people giving notice that a less renowned protégée will be making a voyage in the future and requesting that the officials look after them. As much I would like to find letters from the actual travelers to the embassies or consulates, they usually went the safer route of having someone like the Paris minister of Foreign Affairs do the talking for them. One had to be fairly well-connected to travel abroad.

In other cases, what you’re dealing with is an outright patron-client relationship. Connections are still important. The relationship between a benefactor and their protégée, or a patron and their client, is probably the most common sort of non-familial relationship in western history. In fact, it’s striking how long patronage lasted in the West, enduring in certain arts and professions until today. This is probably why movies like the Godfather strike us as portraying the ways of the “old country”, patronage relationships really are old world, going back at least to Greco-Roman times.

Clienthood has its privileges. You don’t have to wait until you’ve made your name to gain access to places where a name is required. You have protection and guidance, someone watching your back as they say. More importantly, you have an older friend to guide you as you learn the ropes. This is a bit like apprenticeship, without a contract or necessarily the transmission of some sort of expertise. Graduate student is, of course, an apprentice position, and I can say that the advantage of working alongside someone who knows what they’re doing makes up for the fact that you have to work hard not to disappoint a mentor.

Patronhood also has its privileges. A patron has the assurance that their associates are loyal; something like an unofficial business (patronage is rarely contractual). There is also a sense of passing on one’s legacy and expertise to a new generation, as well as ensuring that the next generation will share your values. And there is something flattering about the respect that a mentor position carries with it. If this is no longer obvious, it is only because we live in a kid-centric culture. In most apprenticeship or mentorship roles, which are as close as we come to actual patronage, there is a devotion that borders on the erotic, but which must never pass that line.

Note, however, that apprenticeship is becoming archaic in the modern world. I would say that actual patronage relationships are exceptional in the modern world, with perhaps an exception in the fine arts: it might be possible to see artistic management as being similar to patronage, although contractual. Probably the rareness of patronage has to do with our emphasis on individual accomplishment and genius. There is something odious in a meritocracy with a person having the doors opened for them.

However, in terms of cultural stability, one might imagine that patron-client relationships would be more beneficial than capitalist competition for producing people with civic virtues. I have no idea if cultural conservatives ever call for a return to patronage, but as well they might.

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