What Comes Next? Power Transitions in the Middle Ages

Today is a big day in America, yet it’s an event that occurs every four or eight years: the inauguration of a new president.  Since I’ve also been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the words of King George’s songs keep running through my head.

“What comes next/ you’ve been freed/ Do you know how hard it is to lead?”

and later on, “Are they gonna keep replacing whoever’s in charge?”

Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, 1346-1378

Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, 1346-1378

I thought I would mark the occasion with some observations about the transfer of power in the Middle Ages.  People often assume, and fantasy authors usually present, a medieval world in which leadership roles transferred somewhat automatically from father to son.  In the event that there was no son, some amount of chaos ensued while the potential heirs presented their competing claims–often at the end of a sword.

Edward III of England, for example, claimed the throne of France through his mother, and fought for it numerous times.  Such a claim was often made not to actually seize the throne of another country, but rather to serve as a club with which to gain other concessions, like ancestral lands or privileges once belonging to the family.  By that point, in the 1340’s, the ancestry of both England and France were so tangled through centuries of intermarriage that each monarch laid claim to the throne or fealty of the other.

In some places, the sons of a leader were deliberately overlooked, because you couldn’t be certain they were actually related to him.  In that case, the children of the lord’s sister would be his heirs.  (Ghana, for example)

At other times on this blog, I’ve noted different forms of transitioning power, some of which are less familiar to the reader of medieval fantasy, or to others more casually aware of the Middle Ages.  Mongolia’s democratic leanings, for instance, are a common feature of nomadic cultures.  Leadership claims tended to be more based on vital real-world skills like an ability to read the weather or land, to lead toward good hunting or good pastureland, to negotiate for passage or retaliate quickly for the incursions of others.  The idea of owning land and building permanent structures which might need a more permanent managerial system, anthropologically speaking, seems to arise more with the advent of agriculture rather than husbandry.

The title of Holy Roman Emperor was also by election, with the electors representing different regions of the empire (what is now Germany and Eastern Europe) as well as high-ranking church officials.  In the event that an emperor was found to be unsuitable, the electors then put forward a new candidate–whose first task, of course, was to convince the sitting emperor to give up his crown.

Even within the settled structures of medieval culture, the city-states of Italy often used communal governance, with a group of high-ranking officials taking charge and making decisions for their city and region.  Again, the economy of these city-states plays a large role in determining their governance:  their trade-based wealth required leadership drawn from those who understood the balances of import and export, investment and tariff.  And of course, those who wield significant wealth and influence often refuse to submit to mere political authority, preferring to hold the reins themselves.

Rome always held a unique position among the cities of Italy.  The theoretical seat of the church, it derived much of its prominence from the presence of the Pope and cardinals–but they fled to France when the countryside got rough, leaving the barons to squabble over the city itself.  Cola di Rienzo led a popular revolt to claim control of the city, only to (as Hamilton‘s King George would have predicted) fall into anarchy when he couldn’t figure out how to lead a state instead of an army.

And even within the traditional feudal system of transference of power to family, we have cases where women inherited, like Joanna of Naples, or governed on behalf of absent husbands or minor children, often remaining in power for a long time–as happened more than once in China.

So, will America’s transition of power lead to a new age of glory, or to a devolution into chaos, or, as seems more likely, be simply another term of checks and balances until we peacefully (if with protest) transition again?  Hopefully no one will need to get killed at the gate for us to find out.

Advertisements

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in fantasy, history, medieval, Mongolia and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s