As a com­ple­mentary approach to the con­cepts of Com­posite monar­chies and Poly­centric Empires, I would like to posit the heuristic rel­e­vance of a Rhi­zomatic con­ception of early modern empires. The botanical analogy of the Rhizome was defined by Deleuze and Guattari in their seminal work on Cap­i­talism and Schiz­o­phrenia pub­lished in 1980:

in con­trast to cen­tered (even poly­centric) systems with hier­ar­chical modes of com­mu­ni­cation and pre-established paths, the rhizome is an a‑centered, non­hier­ar­chical, non-signifying system, defined solely by a cir­cu­lation of states.”

I find this analogy useful when thinking about Michael Pollan’s call for a natural history of pol­itics and researching its echoes during early modern times. While working on the eco­nomic and intel­lectual history of citrus fruits–including their deriv­a­tives like jams, per­fumes or images–across the Iberian Empire (1580–1640), I have deter­mined that the cir­cu­la­tions of these fruits and asso­ciated products con­tributed to the rhi­zomatic artic­u­lation and dis­ar­tic­u­lation of empires that were per­pet­ually pro­longing them­selves, breaking off and starting up again. Through these processes, fruit cir­cu­la­tions con­tributed to visual rein­ven­tions, physical dis­place­ments, and intel­lectual con­nec­tions across and amid the ever-changing political struc­tures of empires.


Looking at empires through the per­spective of natural resources reveals the visions and doubts that peri­patetic actors (artists, writers, men and women of letters in exile, and many other acute observers) shared about the exis­tence of absolute and unitary state appa­ra­tuses during “Global Crisis” of the sev­en­teenth century. Such actors per­ceived the natural envi­ron­ments of the empires they lived in as “strengths of pro­duction, in a per­petual temp­tation of meta­mor­phosis, […] which implies a matter in per­petual activity of cre­ation.” By dis­cussing pol­itics through their under­standing of natural history, these actors dreamed of “mobile and elusive,” states that were “irre­ducible to per­ma­nence and alignment” (see ref­erence to Cyrano’s text below). In these cases, the rhi­zomatic approach allows for:

  1. taking into account non-linear forms of com­mu­ni­cation within but also beyond imperial bound­aries during the Thirty Years’ War (c. 1618–1648)
  2. eval­u­ating how con­flicts and the resulting com­mu­nicative chaos fueled many forms of dis­si­dence that fed the Baroque “news rev­o­lution” and “inter­na­tional rela­tions”. Early modern states and diplo­matic systems were rooted in Late Renais­sance forms of political resis­tance, embodied for the most part by global forms of lib­ertinage érudit.

To take one example, in his Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1657) Cyrano de Bergerac por­trayed seventeenth-century empires that had gone adrift through an infinite cosmos. Between Giordano Bruno’s De l’in­finito, uni­verse e mondi pub­lished in 1584, and Fontenelle’s Entre­tiens sur la plu­ralité des mondes, pub­lished in 1686, Cyrano’s utopian states belonged to the “eternal silence” of Blaise Pascal’s “infinite spaces”. These were worlds in which sov­er­eigns were known as “Planet” or “Sun” Kings, and it is sig­nif­icant that the men and women of letters who imagined cen­terless worlds in this political context were often thinking and writing from jails and on the rocky road of exile. Within a world of con­tinuous warfare, they looked for a way out of anx­i­eties and con­flicts (indi­vidual and col­lective) by pro­jecting them­selves into macro/micro-cosmic spaces and voids. Cyrano’s allusion to the exis­tence of mobile cities on the moon offers a glimpse into alter­native con­cep­tions of empires char­ac­terized by a con­stant state of flux. He wrote:

mobile cities, like [this one], are con­structed as follows: the architect builds each palace of very light wood and inserts four wheels under­neath it. When it is desired to move the town some­where, each one hangs out a number of large sails from one side of his house in front of the bellows […] in less than eight days the con­tinuous blasts vomited by these windy mon­sters against the sails carry their houses, if they wish, more than a hundred leagues.”

Cyrano’s mobile cities were metaphors for armies and camps engaged in per­petual dis­placement, cir­cling around the atro­cious encounters of the Thirty Years’ War. Geoffrey Parker has explained that mid-seventeenth century global con­flicts can’t be under­stood without taking into account the wrath of con­comitant natural dis­asters. Likewise, in the early modern period, writers envi­sioned drastic change and dis­as­trous causes in terms of natural history. In his Voyages, Cyrano depicted a natural world in which humans, animals, plants, and fruits could mutate into one another in the blink of an eye. Crowned fruits, such as the Pome­granate which Cyrano meta­mor­phosed into the Prince of the solar spirits, is a good example of the agency that material goods gained when linked to imperial reforms. Beyond strong sym­bolic attributes related to con­cepts like sov­er­eignty, fruits such as Pome­granates and Pineapples shaped and/or pro­vided tools for crit­i­cizing the itin­erant struc­tures of empires and their shifty hegemonies.


But why cit­ruses? Unlike other products, citrus fruits resisted com­modi­ti­zation and offered Baroque political thinkers alter­native ways to con­ceive the world, its pol­itics, and its mech­anism of oppression and tol­erance through their high degree of hybridity, their natural pre­dis­po­si­tions to meta­mor­phosis, their “unknown” origins, and their resis­tance to domes­ti­cation. David Freedberg (1992) explored this story through a deep dive into the citrus-centered and oth­erwise mul­ti­faceted visual history, anti­quarian account, and learned poem, written by the Jesuit Gio­vanni Bat­tista Ferrari and pub­lished in Rome in 1646 under the title Hes­perides sive de Malorum Aureorum cultura et usu […]”. As an expert lin­guist, Ferrari showed that cit­ruses had been used by men and women of letters and artists alike (e. i. Cyrano, Galileo, etc.) because of their prop­erties as seg­mented fruits and objects nec­essary to apprehend the ever-changing ter­ri­to­ri­al­ities of sev­en­teenth and eighteenth-century empires.

To return to the con­cepts of Deleuze and Guattari, “seg­men­tarity” con­sti­tutes a crucial com­ponent of rhi­zomatic ensembles. Such “seg­men­tarity” can in fact be shown to secure com­mu­ni­cation flows between het­ero­ge­neous ele­ments. In the first place, Iberian men and women of letters used the trade of seg­mented fruits and derived citrus products as a vector through which to transmit political com­mu­ni­ca­tions as they wan­dered seg­mented ter­ri­tories. As they did so, they prop­a­gated dis­courses explaining how the taste, the essence, and forms of cit­ruses were valuable when devising and/or crit­i­cizing imperial reforms.

Rhi­zomatic cir­cu­lation of ideas, cri­tiques, through citrus medias (highly appre­ciated for very dif­ferent reasons in court set­tings and across con­spicuous markets) offers one way out of a ten­dency to frame imperial his­tories as con­stel­la­tions of inter­me­di­aries, passeurs, and go-betweens, a framework con­strained by the center-periphery logic of com­posite ana­lytical models. Instead of writing another history of empires by fol­lowing a com­modity (cotton, gem­stones, feathers, tea, salt, cod), there is an oppor­tunity to reflect upon how fruit cir­cu­la­tions and intel­lectual exchanges fos­tered improbable con­nec­tions, even between the history of Late Renais­sance curiosity and the devel­opment of eighteenth-century political economy.


Let’s turn to a last example. In her splendid dis­ser­tation on Saveurs et savoirs du monde (2014), Dora de Lima explained how the Por­tuguese jurist, Duarte Ribeiro Macedo (Lisbon 1618-Alicante 1680) built on the anti­quarian fas­ci­nation for citrus fruits to design imperial reforms based on the trans­plan­ta­tions of natural goods between imperial ter­ri­tories. For example, Ribeiro Macedo pro­posed to his King to mit­igate the loss of Por­tuguese feitorias in Asia by moving Chinese citrus cul­tivars to com­pa­rable lat­i­tudes in Brazil. He com­posed his Obser­vações sobre a transplatação dos fructos da India ao Brazil when he was the Por­tuguese ambas­sador in Paris between 1668–1676. Dora de Lima shows how the treatise was based on the eco­nomic reforms of France’s Finance Min­ister, Colbert, but I would like to suggest that Ribeiro Macedo’s Obser­va­tionswere also grounded in an intel­lectual tra­dition that used fruits and citrus exchanges as an excuse to talk about the adjustment of trans-imperial juris­dic­tions. Even though Ribeiro Macedo was acting as an agent of law and order, my “guess” is that he, like many other statesmen during the Clas­sical Age (for what this concept is worth), turned a profit on critical obser­va­tions which were forged earlier by floating com­mu­nities and estranged intel­lec­tuals. These com­mu­nities and indi­viduals, in harmony or dis­agreement with Ferrari’s vision, had been advo­cating, to give only one example, for the return of Jewish and New Chris­tians mer­chants to the Por­tuguese monarchy after its ces­sation from Spain in 1640 in order to restore former juris­dic­tions and attack inquisi­torial systems of oppression.

As much as the natural order of the world was shaken during the mid-seventeenth century, imperial hege­monies were too, and con­tem­po­raries observed and influ­enced the con­nec­tions between these processes. A natural history of Iberian pol­itics from the per­spective of men and women of letters in exile will help modern-day scholars inter­ested in imperial forms of gov­er­nance and resis­tance to take into account the rhi­zomatic flows that con­tributed to state-building processes and the extension of a public sphere of opinion prior to le temps des Philosophes. Phe­nomena such as political dis­si­dence against all forms of impe­ri­alism, as well as the impact of con­flicts, crisis, and wars on indi­vidual and col­lective political bodies were often inspired by what Enrique García Santo-Tomás referred to as the “refracted muse” (2015) of Baroque micro and macro uni­verses. As Fred­erique Ait-Touati stated in Fic­tions of the Cosmos (2011), a new point of view from which to describe the world became nec­essary for reforming old and devising new empires during the early modern period. Today we can recover such a point of view by engaging simul­ta­ne­ously with the natural and rhi­zomatic foun­da­tions of empires and politics.