Not long ago, on March 16th-18th 2016, the ERC funded project at the University of Oxford The Jagiellonians: Dynasty, Memory and Identity in Central Europe hosted a conference on Dynasty and Dynasticism, 1400-1700.
We asked Milinda Banerjee (Presidency University, Kolkata), Hélder Carvalhal (CIDEHUS, University of Évora) and Jonathan Spangler (Manchester Metropolitan University) to send us their impressions from this conference!
Thanks to Milinda, Hélder and Jonathan for their reports on the conference! Just drop us an email if you are also interested in sharing your thoughts about a conference you’ve been to!
Milinda Banerjee: The conference operated at the intersections of three scales of enquiry, bridging histories of Central and Eastern Europe (in the Jagiellonian sphere of control or influence), of late medieval and early modern European monarchies in general, and of global (including extra-European) dynastic polities. The introduction by the project leader Natalia Nowakowska (Oxford) sketched some of the main historiographic shifts in thinking about early modern dynasties and dynasticism over recent years, across disciplinary (historical, anthropological, and sociological) strands. The plenary lectures by Jeroen Duindam (Leiden) and Craig Clunas (Oxford) highlighted the need to think about early modern monarchies in global frames, in terms of parallels, connections, and divergences between different royal-dynastic polities from China to the Islamic world to Europe and Africa, while the plenary lecture of Paula Sutter Fichtner (CUNY/Brooklyn College) focused on the more specific case of the Habsburgs to draw out broader questions about the links between kinship, affective languages, and political power. The plenary lectures as well as the many individual papers all highlighted a certain common theme: that dynasty and dynasticism has not received adequate conceptual and critical recognition in historical scholarship, given that the presence of royal dynasties has often been taken for granted as a historical background, rather than rigorously analysed as a framing category in its own right for both historical actors and modern scholars. A majority of the papers focused on questions of representation and contestation, in the sense of how the royal (or even, non-royal, such as papal or aristocratic) dynasties represented themselves in terms of political thought and categorization, artistic and ceremonial language, and emotive vocabularies, and how their articulations were complicated, challenged, and destabilized by a plurality of social actors. Many of the panellists investigated how such self-consciously articulate dynastic languages interacted with other political idioms, including those provided by various religious systems and various sorts of patriotic, republican, or even (proto-) nationalist conceptual systems. Issues of gender were highlighted by several papers which focused on the gendering of power and the scope of female agency. Papers on China, West and Central Asia, and India brought new interesting extra-European perspectives into dialogue with early modern European frames of analysis. The concluding roundtable summarized some of the overarching discussion themes, even as the diversity of voices in the roundtable as well as in the preceding panels made it quite clear that ‘dynasty’ is better seen as a heuristically useful tool of analysis rather than as a monolithic category that can erase other social and spatial diversities.
Hélder Carvalhal: It is hard to encapsulate three very productive days in just a few words. As a result, this brief report is based on the sum of two aspects. First, I will generally approach how participants faced the central theme of the congress. In a parallel way, I will introduce some elements of what and how much I learned in those three days. Thus, the following lines are necessarily biased by my personal experience and interest. Apart from keynote speakers, individual papers will be addressed together regarding their respective themes.
Despite of being organized by an ERC-funded project dedicated to the study of Jagellonians, the congress was rather open and inclusive. With a set of papers approaching various issues concerning the major European dynasties at the period, although not exclusively, Dynasties and Dynasticism did accomplished its main goal – to reassess what exactly we known as “dynasty”. Conceptual debate became quite clear right since the beginning. Initial interventions of Natalia Nowakowska and Jeroen Duindam underlined the need of exploring dynasties on a more profound way, therefore overcoming static definitions and pre-established common-places. The latter’s recent comparative work about this subject (Dynasties: A Global History of Power: 1300-1800, 2015) also drew attention to certain aspects which eventually came around during parallel sessions. Concretely, I am referring to issues as legitimacy (including competition for the throne and the destiny give to siblings/collaterals) or models of ruling (with particular interest on how rule of women affected dynastical power, among other phenomena dealing with diffusion/concentration of power).
Obviously, with such diversity of themes and geographies, comparative perspectives with other continents (especially Asia and Africa) did appear sporadically. In fact, such exercise has its merits, one of them being the general impression that European monarchies during the studied period are extremely homogenous and arguably much closer to its Asian and African counterparts than we initially thought. Interest discussion raised by Craig Clunas in his keynote approached the upwards of studying Asian dynasties, as well as the existence of several “Asias” in opposition to an image of a nearly homogeneous continent. This last debate, promoted by the most recent Sanjay Subrahmanyam´s piece on Asian connected histories (“One Asia, or Many? Reflections from connected history”, Modern Asian Studies 50, 1, 2016, pp. 5-43) brings food for thought regarding not only Asia, but other regions. If one neglects the Eurocentric perspective, perhaps a similar question can be asked: is there one Europe, especially regarding dynasties? There are some distinctive features, particularly in what concerns marriage, succession and primogeniture. Apparently, something happened within numerous European political units and respective dynasties during the late medieval and early modern period. The conference showed that in many cases we do see legitimacy urges on the behalf of the monarch, projecting a constructed image for political purposes. Used mechanisms were usually confined to the creation and maintenance of the memory (genealogies, often forged; spaces and buildings, etc), the refinement of old-fashioned court rituals (ceremonials and etiquette, but also military/chivalric orders) and to a careful considered matrimonial policy. Several presentations explored these aspects (among others, Brero, Zupka, Coman, González Cuerva). In the same vein, dynastic consciousness as an issue was perhaps the most common aspect during the presentations. It is curious to verify that dynastical image construction could serve for internal political purposes (dynasty as a “family corporation”) – as Piseri and Van der Steen contributions showed – but also when the time for affirm sovereignty regarding external intentions came round. Another popular concept, connected with the latter and raised numerous times during the sessions, was competition. It was not a particular surprise, since – as the initial keynotes noted – rivalry and antagonism usually happened when dynasties face diverse problems. Hence, many of the presented case studies referred themselves to competition within the same or between two or more dynasties.
In sum, it was a very pleasant, intense and rewarding event. As an early career researcher, I learned and benefitted immensely. Not only because of the content itself – note that Eastern Europe historiography not always receive a lot of attention in this “fringe” of Europe, nor post-graduation programmes contemplate reasonable input about the said region – but especially in what concerns the main debates within the study of dynasties as a space of observation per se.
Jonathan Spangler: It would be difficult to summarise three days of stimulating papers in a few short paragraphs. And on top of the value of such a breadth of shared comparative research, there is the warmth of collegiality to be commented upon. For three days, scholars from all over the world congregated in Somerville College, Oxford, brought together by the team of the Jagiellonians research project, led by Natalia Nowakowska, and shared their research but also their passion for history with one another. I’ve been to many conferences, and this was among the better of them in terms of a spirit of shared endeavour, over coffee breaks, in the dining hall over breakfast, in the pub, and in the final discussion that rounded off the conference. All I can do here is offer a few highlights, and share some of the insights I took away with me.
In terms of comparative research and experience, this conference did two things, bridging the gap between European and non-European specialisations, but also the divide that often runs between medievalists and early modernists. This divide has been smoothed over quite a bit recently, for example by groups such as the Royal Studies Network, and it is certainly a trend that should continue. Amongst French historians in particular, there has often been a curious division between the reigns of Louis XII and François I, as if the Renaissance suddenly burst forth in an instant, banishing the darkness. It was unfortunate, therefore, that French academics were quite under-represented at this conference. In contrast, it was a wonder to share so many discussions with eastern European scholars, naturally brought together by the theme of the Jagiellonians, the amazing dynasty that at various points ruled over Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and Hungary. We were also privileged to learn more about dynasties outside Europe: Turks, Mongols, Manchus.
In general, I can summarise the larger points taken away by delegates through points raised by two of the keynote speakers and by the leaders of the concluding roundtable discussion. Jeroen Duindam (Leiden), as usual, delivered a broad-ranging talk full of stimulating illustrations drawn from his recent book (Dynasties: A Global History of Power, 1300-1800), that demonstrated that dynasties across the early modern world shared many characteristics. Duindam offered three concise thinking points about dynasticism: that it can be divided roughly into two systems (concentrated or diffuse); that legitimacy was a concern shared by all ruling families; and that Europe did seem to have an exceptionalism (a ‘Sonderweg’) that made its dynasties distinct (mainly monogamy and primogeniture). Craig Clunas (Oxford) then helped draw in several points from the conference for further discussion, notably what exactly was meant by a dynasty in historical terms, and whether the study of dynasties is useful to the historian. As a Chinese specialist, his talk was particularly convincing, coming from a historical field in which ‘dynasty’ defines almost everything about a period, rightly or wrongly. His conclusion was that we can use such a term meaningfully, but that it must also be seen as fluid and changeable, and that ‘trans-dynasticism’ is equally valid. Senior historians who participated in the round-table, notably John Morrill (Cambridge) and Martyn Rady (University College London), stressed the nature of cultural transfer across dynasties (as alluded to by Clunas in his keynote address); the role of dynasties in state building (and the incorporation of other elites into dynastic identity beyond those connected by blood); the shared culture of dynasticism that extended far beyond the ruling families into villages and households of ordinary people; and the reception of this culture by those same ordinary people.