Following protocol


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A papal bull of Alexander III (1159-1181) opening with Alexander’s name and ending with the date and place, British Library, Add Ch 54148

Engaging in diplomacy is about following the diplomatic rules of etiquette, commonly referred to as the protocol. There are rules of engagement in warfare, there are rules of courtesy in diplomacy. Even though the protocol is not everything, it is the starting point in an exchange, verbal or written. It’s the protos (Greek for ‘beginning’) in the word ‘protocol’.

There has been so much protocol involved in diplomacy, and so much diplomacy in resolving (as well as leading to) conflict that we are bound to neglect the chirographic origin of both words. A book is yet to be written about how every single word can be traced back to an act of speaking and writing.

Diplomacy may be the art and practice of conducting negotiations between official representatives, but fundamentally it is an act of folding a piece of paper in two. The Greek word diploun means to fold over, and when it is folded double, it makes a nice diploma, which may be carried around to advance the cause of diplomacy. Perhaps if the Greeks hadn’t folded documents in two, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about which folder our files are in.

So diplomacy was about the business of transacting official documents, which were originally folded in two. But before they could be transacted, the documents had to be drafted, following a protocol.

To have any meaning, rules have to be followed – and occasionally broken, but that’s another matter. The protocol was born in the medieval period, as you probably suspected, and had to do with the manner of how official documents were drafted. Just like ‘diplomacy’, the word ‘protocol’ harks back to a chirographic age when a piece of parchment was glued (more Greek: kolla means glue) as the first (protos) sheet of a parchment manuscript, a kind of flyleaf or cover page in a book or notebook.

The humble origin of protocol doesn’t explain its success. To get there, it had to twist and turn through the centuries until it ended up as the opening formula in a letter or official document, the formulaic salutation we inherited, though heavily reduced, in our formal letters and emails: Dear Sir/Madam [comma]. Only that a medieval document protocol included so much more, such as the invocation (In the name of the Trinity), the sender’s name, the addressee, and the salutation (Hello!), all in one breath. The document ended with another protocol, known as final protocol or ‘eschatocol’ (from the Greek eschatos meaning last), which included the date and, especially in the earlier Middle Ages, a final invocation.

We’ve always written our letters following an established protocol. As formality and ‘formulaic-ness’ retreat under the pressure of new media and increasingly more casual communication patterns, we are at risk of relegating protocols to the final clauses of our cultural letter. And then we fold.





3 thoughts on “Following protocol

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  1. It makes me think about Albrecht von Eyb’s Margarita Poetica “Fabriccius observed that “Eyb stressed two things throughout the Margarita: “to be able to write well and to be disposed to live properly.”

    In a contrast to “Ars Dictaminis”  (perhaps the Middle Ages  version of TEXTING)  von Eyb uses this work to re-Introduce Cicero’s Vetera Rhetorica. While certainly there are many late medieval texts on letter writing, Eyb as can be seen in the structure of this book wants to re-introduce an ethics of communication based on maybe something more than manners?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fascinating. Thank you. If ars dictaminis is a kind of texting, then we need to capture the Tullian spirit and let it loose in our communication.


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