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22.04.14 Bartlett, Blood Royal

22.04.14 Bartlett, Blood Royal

It has been a long time since the rise of the nation state has been a principal focus of medieval historians. The kings and battles of many a textbook have faded from serious scholarship, replaced by women, the poor, saints, minority communities, and so much more. When kings and queens are still found, it is generally in the context of how governance functioned in the Middle Ages (without using kings to look ahead to modern nations), or else royal families are used as examples of how family structure was conceptualized. Even these approaches have become much less common in recent years.

But here Robert Bartlett returns unapologetically to royal dynasties in the Middle Ages, an era when national politics and family politics were inextricably entwined. It is not that long ago that kings were the default form of European government; at the beginning of the twentieth century almost every European country, excepting only France and Switzerland, had a royal ruler. But a hundred years later, as he points out, king and queens were found in only a handful of these countries, and purely in a ceremonial role. It can thus be important to be reminded how crucial royal dynasties were in the Middle Ages, and how highly varied they were.

Bartlett’s scope is broad, most of western Europe and Byzantium for the full 500-1500 medieval period. The only obvious gap is Kyivan Rus, whose ruling dynasty intermarried with most of Europe’s royal families from the eleventh century on, as detailed by Christian Raffensperger in his monumental Ties of Kinship (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2016). The discussion here is arranged thematically rather than geographically or chronologically, meaning that the same people may appear multiple times in different contexts. The book is divided into two main sections: the life-cycle, including marriage, birth, death, and growing up royal; and dynastic creation, including choice of names and the creation of accounts of glorious ancestors. Although Bartlett touches on the Merovingians, the Carolingians, and the Lombard kings of Italy, the emphasis throughout is on the twelfth through fifteenth centuries.

Curiously, the book has no overall thesis or argument, being primarily descriptive. It is essentially a series of short, intriguing stories about royal families, such as the rejoicing in the streets of Paris at the news of the birth of an heir, or efforts to keep a randy teenage king away from his bride before their wedding day. It is thus not entirely clear what audience is anticipated. A long, dense book, based on a very extensive body of primary and secondary sources, replete with Latin quotations and stuffed with names, would appear aimed at other scholars. But the broad overview of royal dynasties across many countries and a thousand years seems intended more for intelligent lay readers, the same sorts of people who have enjoyed the informative BBC programs that Bartlett has helped create.

That said, this wide-ranging book is clearly and engagingly written, full of good insights into the form of government that has been the standard for most of western history until very recently. One of its important contributions is the emphasis on the sheer variety of forms royal dynasty might take. Bartlett points out that the stereotypical image of a king succeeded without much fuss by his oldest adult son really only applied to the Capetians in the Middle Ages, and not always then. Male rule was indeed the norm for all dynasties, but succession could become fraught, due to such factors as an absence of male heirs, fierce competition between kin, minorities of heirs, and outright usurpation.

In spite of the overwhelming preference in the Middle Ages for men as royal rulers, women were a necessary part of every dynasty, those who bore the next generation of kings if nothing else--and sovereign queens appeared intermittently throughout the high and late Middle Ages. Bartlett gives queens and princesses their full due, discussing the ways that a woman might become queen, from being chosen as the most beautiful among several, to bringing territory to a king or creating an alliance, to providing a consort when issues of consanguinity had ruled out most other high-born women. A challenge arose when, as frequently happened, a queen came from a different country and culture and had to learn a new language as well as new customs, sometimes even adopt a new name. Additionally, such a foreign queen brought both attendants and practices from her homeland, which could be seen as bizarre and shameless as well as unfamiliar to those around the king. And there was always the question of what should be done if a queen, regardless of her origins, failed to produce an heir. Discussion of these and similar issues makes clear the centrality of women to royal family dynamics, one of the book’s high points, and Bartlett’s analysis also includes the younger sons, children who died before reaching adulthood, and illegitimate offspring, all of whom are often neglected in accounts of medieval kings.

The most original contribution of this work is probably found in chapter 8, where Bartlett problematizes the idea of “dynasty.” The word began in antiquity to describe different groups of rulers of Egypt, and its use in the Middle Ages was primarily in the context of Egyptian history. Medieval people spoke of families or lineages or houses, but Bartlett makes clear how much modern scholars have turned a general term for a fluid assemblage of people related to each other into something more specific. Most of the names we now give dynasties, like Plantagenet, were not even in use for most of the medieval period. The chapter goes on to discuss personal names and how certain names became traditionally established in a dynasty--or how new names might become associated with a line of kings.

The book’s greatest strength overall is humanizing the kings and queens. They may have been very powerful people, but Bartlett shows them making elaborate plans that never quite worked out, worrying (entirely appropriately) about the perils of childbirth, grieving for boys and girls who died in childhood, trying to raise surviving children to be ready for their future responsibility, or feeling strong animosity toward a spouse. Politics could not be separated from family dynamics, Bartlett keeps reminding the reader, and the family dynamics of the Middle Ages were little different from those experienced today. (One can also note that, as complicated and messy as the situations in the fictional Game of Thrones may be, they are actually less so than the real medieval events that inspired them.)

The notes are extensive, so one wishes they could have been at the bottom of the page for easier reference, rather than at the end. One seriously misses family trees; the position of individuals within their dynasties would have been much clearer with them. As it is, the only family trees provided are those of the kings of the Scots and of the fifteenth-century claimants to the throne of Aragon.

Bartlett writes clearly and engagingly. This is a good book to dip into and certainly worth recommending to well-read non-academics who are interested in medieval royalty at a level beyond history-buff fun facts. For example, he explains the origins of the millennium-long quarrels over Alsace-Lorraine in the royal family squabbles of the ninth century (206-210). Bartlett’s thorough familiarity with the dynasties and the sources in which they appear, at a level well beyond what usually appears in studies that involve the particular kings, mean that this book is unlikely to be superseded for the foreseeable future.