Matthew McDonald is a political and cultural historian of France in the context of early modern Europe. His research is on the preponderance of French as Europe’s major international language from the mid-eighteenth century through the Napoleonic Wars.
His dissertation, “A Linguistic Archipelago: The Spread of European French, 1740–1815,” narrates how a geographically wide but socially restricted community of Francophone elites used the language as a means of social distinction. It gained traction both within France and abroad as a means of separating elites from commoners. At the same time, French granted access to a practical cosmopolitanism through which outsiders could define themselves as “European."
Matthew’s work examines to what extent the French language and French culture were prevalent in a variety of fields: from diplomacy, administration and sociability to book printing, scientific research and the pursuit of luxury. He also shows how the language retained its associations with distinction in the nineteenth century as it became the language of state-building at home and of soft power and colonial ambition abroad.
Matthew’s research on French cosmopolitanism has taken him to archives across Europe and America. His research in Germany has been supported by the DAAD (in exchange with the Freie Universität Berlin), by the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, and as a Herzog-Ernst Fellow at the Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universität Erfurt. He has also conducted research at Uppsala University in Sweden with the support of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Matthew spent the fall semesters of 2018 and 2019 as a visiting student at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and is currently a Graduate Fellow at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.
Matthew previously received a Bachelor of Arts with honors in history at the University of Chicago, where he studied classicism and state-building in the reign of Louis XIV. A classical violinist and singer, Matthew has curated historical exhibits for the New York Philharmonic. He performs on campus with the group Early Music Princeton.