Robert Bartlett


On his book Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

Cover Interview of November 18, 2020


If I were asked “why read about the Middle Ages?”, I think I would give three reasons. First, that we can see there the roots of some things that are important in the modern world: representative government, universities, corporate towns, reading glasses, clocks, for example. To look for origins is a natural impulse. Second, that we there encounter a world quite different from our own, sometimes dramatically so. In trial by ordeal, an accused person might be required to carry a red-hot iron three paces, then have their hand bound and inspected after three days. If it was healing cleanly, the accused was innocent, if not, not. This is not a current practice but in the early Middle Ages it was and demands some kind of explanation—both of why it was and why it is no longer. To try to understand societies different from our own is a basic form of human inquiry. The social science of anthropology was born from that impulse, but it applies equally well as a description of the historian’s task. The third reason for reading about the Middle Ages is that it is a period full of wonderful stories and fascinating people.

I would hope that Blood Royal would be of interest under all these three headings. It does explain features of modern Europe, such as why France and Germany are separate countries and why Spain and Portugal are separate countries. In both cases the explanation lies in family disputes: between brothers in the ninth century, between sisters in the twelfth. And the whole book is premised on the idea that the dynastic system is alien to modern western democracies and needs to be explained to audiences in those countries. In the few surviving European monarchies, the royal family is sometimes a subject of interest or gossip, but in the dynastic world it was central to the whole political system. And, of course, I do think the book is full of stories and characters of intrinsic interest.

Before doing research for the book, I had never come across the document issued by Petronilla, queen of Aragon, in 1152. It begins, “I, Petronilla, queen of Aragon, lying and labouring in childbirth at Barcelona…”, and then makes provision for the child that was imminently expected, whether it is a boy that “is to proceed from my womb, by God’s will”, or “if a daughter should proceed from my womb”, and giving 2,000 gold coins to the churches of Aragon and Barcelona to pray for her. She gave birth to a healthy boy who become king after her, and “the royal seed” of Aragon was thus preserved. She was fifteen years old. It demonstrates very well the way that the political system of medieval Europe was founded on the female body. “Dynasty—where kinship and politics meet”, as the kind author of one of the blurbs on the book jacket puts it.