Matthew McDonald is a political and cultural historian of early modern Europe studying with David Bell. His research is on the rise and fall of French as the major European language of international communication and social distinction from the mid-eighteenth century through the Napoleonic Wars.
His dissertation narrates the history of French through the intersection of two contradictory frameworks. The first is egalitarian; the language was a medium of interaction that granted access to an international market of luxury goods and Enlightened ideas. The second is hierarchical; French played a determining role in social distinction and operated as a linguistic barrier that separated elites from commoners. In doing so, French reinforced the inequalities that were endemic to the European old regime. Matthew’s research shows how cosmopolitan Francophones controlled and exploited this tension between equality and hierarchy in a variety of fields: from diplomacy, administration and sociability to book printing, scientific research and the pursuit of luxury.
These contradictions between equality and hierarchy contributed to the French language’s increasing politicization and to its relative decline through the early nineteenth century. However, French remained a potent cultural code that continued to define elite status in bourgeois Europe, a particularity that the language has arguably retained to this day. The universal status of French in the eighteenth century further led to the expansion of French soft power in the modern era, with important consequences both for domestic state-building and for the French colonial project abroad.
Matthew’s research on French cosmopolitanism has taken him to archives across Europe and America. His research in Berlin has been supported through fellowships from the DAAD (in exchange with the Freie Universität Berlin) and the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. He also spent a semester as a visiting student at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in autumn 2018. Matthew will be in Germany this spring as a Herzog-Ernst Fellow at the Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universität Erfurt and will continue his dissertation research through the summer in Sweden.
Matthew previously received a Bachelor of Arts with honors in history at the University of Chicago, where he studied classicism and state-building under Louis XIV with professors Paul Cheney and Larry Norman. 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.