You pays your money, you takes your choice….

Right now I’m reading a Big Fat History Book dealing with tenth century Europe.* In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time circling the boundaries of medieval Europe: the Carolingian Renaissance, Irish monks, Viking raiders, Pope Sylvester II, Muslim Spain, Muslim Sicily, the Islamic world in general. My current reading is making it clear how little I know about Europe qua Europe in this period. I am highlighting names of historical figures I don’t know ** and critical events I haven’t heard of. The margins are filled with “????” and “!!!!!” and notes to myself. You don’t hear me say it often, but this is definitely Not My Field.

Nonetheless, while I was struggling to keep track of unfamiliar names and chronologies, I ran across a historical dynamic that I had seen before in a very different context.

I’ve always assumed that European royal families had practiced primogeniture*** since the dawn of time. Wrong. Frankish kings**** divided their kingdoms up between their sons. It seems like a fair-minded practice, but it is inherently flawed. If everyone played nice, this policy would result in smaller and smaller kingdoms over time. Not surprisingly, people didn’t play nice. Charlemagne’s grandsons went to war over the division of the Carolingian empire before their father was even dead–a period known to German historians as the Brüderkrieg, the brothers’ war. Their sons did the same, tearing apart Charlemagne’s empire in the process.

Most Islamic dynasties didn’t practice primogeniture either. The earliest Islamic community chose the earliest Islamic rulers, the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, based on their piety, ability, and closeness to the prophet. Later Islamic dynasties inherited this vague ideal of choosing the “best” ruler, though they tended to keep things in the family. Without a clear path to success and with numerous sons produced by polygamous marriages, the road to the throne often included savage political scrambling, fratricide (or at least fratri-blinding and imprisoning), and civil war. Like Charlemagne’s sons, some Islamic princes tried to seize the throne directly from their father instead of waiting for their own version of Brüderkrieg. Powerful, capable men fought their way to the throne. So did vicious psychopaths.

Obviously the absence of a clear succession policy has a deleterious effect on empires. On the other hand, primogeniture is basically a lottery without reference to ability. Makes a presidential election look pretty good by comparison, doesn’t it?

* Not trying to be coy here. I’m reviewing it for Shelf Awareness for Readers and they have first dibs on my thoughts about the book, as opposed to my thoughts about my own ignorance.

** You can bet your buttons that I’m going to go looking for Marozia of Rome: “the only independent female ruler in her own right for four centuries in the European West.” She is accorded three mingy (and very negative) sentences in Chambers Biographical Dictionary, appears only in passing in Britannica Online, and isn’t mentioned at all in my general medieval histories. Stayed tuned.

*** My Own True Love tells me I should define this. Primogeniture refers to the right of the first-born son to succeed or inherit. It’s a policy designed to keep the empire/kingdom/estate/family farm intact, but it doesn’t take ability into account. Younger sons and daughters who might be more capable don’t get an equal chance.

**** i.e. Charlemagne’s predecessors and descendents

Image credit: jaboy / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm on January 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    I’m descended from Charlemagne! So says my step-great-grandma who has done the somewhat sketchy genealogical research. While it may be true, I’m not holding my breath (my maiden name was Green… and there are a LOT of ‘John Green’s in the family tree). But even if it is true, I’ve pointed out to her several times that probably half of Western Europe and the US are descended from Charlemagne.

    She’s still convinced she married into a noble-ish family though. Silly.

    • pamela on January 19, 2013 at 2:55 am

      If it gets someone to take an interest in history, I’m all for it!

      • Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm on January 20, 2013 at 3:55 am

        Well, there’s that. Although… it’s a rather myopic view of history in her case.

  2. The Birth of the West on March 5, 2013 at 9:32 am

    […] weeks ago I mentioned a Big Fat History Book that had me gasping at my own ignorance. I left you dangling, but now that the review has appeared […]

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