Robert Bartlett


On his book Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

Cover Interview of November 18, 2020

In a nutshell

Most countries in medieval Europe were monarchies, ruled by a royal or imperial family, a dynasty, so politics at the top level was shaped by the births, marriages, and deaths of the members of that family, and by competition and cooperation within the dynasty. This is no surprise to anyone who knows a little bit about the history of the period and any account of a medieval reign will discuss such things. However, I had never come across a book that analyzed this fundamental feature of the medieval world in a systematic and thematic way, although there are such studies for other periods, notably Jeroen Duindam, Dynasties: A Global History of Power, 1300-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). A distinctive feature of the book is its wide scope, since it covers the whole medieval period (500-1500) and deals with most of Europe, namely Latin Christendom and the Byzantine empire. By the year 1100 Latin Christendom, that part of the world recognizing the authority of the pope, covered western, northern, and central Europe (I exclude the East Slavs because of my own linguistic limitations).

The dynasty was not only a biological unit but also a political or ideological one. Family structures varied across time and place, most notably between systems such as that of the Merovingian kings of the Franks (c. 500-751) or the Irish royal dynasties, where kings had many sexual partners and all the children were eligible for rule, and the system that, with the backing of the Church, came to predominate in most parts of Europe, where kings were expected to have one wife at a time, could dissolve the marriage only in very specific circumstances and a sharper line was drawn between legitimate and illegitimate children. Succession practices were very different in the two systems and the former tended to produce high levels of competition and violence within the dynasty but meant that dynasties rarely died out biologically, the latter having less intra-dynastic violence but being more vulnerable to biological extinction.

My book concentrates on the second, predominant system, and does so in two ways, which give the book its two-part structure. In part one, “The Life Cycle,” I investigate the whole process of family reproduction, starting with “Choosing a Bride”, then pursuing such themes as “Waiting for Sons to be Born” and “Waiting for Fathers to Die”, ending, naturally enough, with “Royal Mortality”: life expectancy, the frequency of violent death, choice of burial place and forms of commemoration. Part two is titled “A Sense of Dynasty” and discusses ways that ruling families expressed their identity, through such visual cues as heraldry, newly invented in the twelfth century, choice of personal names, or the graphic family tree, and how they shored themselves up in this unstable political world through the supposed guidance of astrology and prophecy.