Robert Bartlett


On his book Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

Cover Interview of November 18, 2020

The wide angle

I think the material in the book has relevance to issues beyond medieval Europe. For instance, anyone interested in family structures and family strategies could find useful comparative material here. It is quite clear that what constitutes “a family” has varied from period to period and from place to place. Such changes are visible over the medieval period itself. I have a discussion of adoption, for example, which was a common practice in the Roman Empire but relatively rare in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Rare but not unknown. This left me quite uncertain about what was going on, and I do not disguise that in the book. Again, the whole book explores what were the boundaries between the private and public. In a world where political power was transmitted through families, it is tempting to describe this as “public power in private hands”, especially when compared to the modern western world, where a sharp line is drawn—the President of the United States or a European Prime Minister can legitimately transmit property but not office to their children. In the medieval period boundaries were different. And another general theme of the book is the uncertainties of history, as illustrated by the many counterfactuals that crop up in the dynastic world: Castile and France could have become one country; there might have been a large kingdom called Burgundy between France and Germany; all the Scandinavian countries might have been one permanently, as they were temporarily. Given the rise of nationalism in recent decades, it is important to note that countries come and go.

The path to this book was a long one. I started teaching medieval history in the 1970s and over the years covered a large number of topics, some of which resulted in books (on trial by ordeal, medieval colonialism, Norman and Angevin England, and the cult of the saints, among others), but the dynastic nature of political power was something that cropped up again and again, and, of course, needed to be explained to students (as well as to myself). And among the historical documentaries I have written and presented for British television is a three-part series called “The Plantagenets” and this naturally involved thinking about what a dynasty was, and what were the dynamics of such a political system. So, when I received an invitation from Trinity College Dublin to give a series of lectures on a medieval topic of my choice, “dynasties’ came to mind. And I always accept invitations from Trinity College Dublin.