This Autumn: The Modern Invention of “Dynasty”

by Ilya Afanasyev (Birmingham) and Dr. Milinda Banerjee (LMU Munich), Conference Organisers

The Modern Invention of Dynasty will be taking place at the University of Birmingham from the 21st-23rd September 2017.

The idea for our conference ‘The Modern Invention of Dynasty: A Global Intellectual History, 1500–2000’ germinated in a room of Somerville College, Oxford, through the convergence of two rather dissatisfied minds on a balmy spring afternoon. We were resting after the long and intense conference ‘Dynasty and Dynasticism, 1400–1700’, organised by the Jagiellonians Project in March 2016. While we enjoyed the many rich and diverse papers at the conference, we were both somewhat at our wit’s end about one basic issue. In writing histories of dynasties, were we not putting the cart before the horse: assuming that something existed as a given (‘dynasty’, and the even more abstract ‘dynasticism’), whose history invited constant attention, rather than questioning what this ‘thing’ was in the first place and whether it needed to be a little de-reified. A crucial critical intuition came from the Jagiellonians project itself: already in 2014, the team led by Natalia Nowakowska had realised that while historians tended to take dynasty for granted they almost never defined it and that medieval evidence on dynasty was ambiguous, to say the least. From our two distinct research genealogies, we had both stumbled into a rather irritating itch. We were both very unsure whether dynasties had really existed globally in the past as ontological or even discursive category. We both intuited that this concept may well be a retrospective construction that had been put into social pasts to straitjacket them. The big question was: why? What exactly was at stake here?

Jagiellon Family
Lucas Cranach the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of us (Milinda Banerjee) felt in the course of his research on colonial India that British elites had in fact, with alarming frequency, imposed ideas of dynasty (and associated norms such as male primogeniture, etc.) on territories which they sought to hegemonically rule over in South Asia. He tracked this through his doctoral dissertation (Heidelberg 2014), even as he supplemented the Heidelberg University research group ‘Nationising the Dynasty’, led by Thomas Maissen, of which he was part, with its logical obverse, ‘Dynastising the Nation’. The coupled terms featured as the theme of a conference the research group organized at UCLA in 2012, the results of which can be seen in the just-published volume Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’. The focus on transculturality in relation to asymmetries of power, as emphasized by the Heidelberg research group, and the broader Cluster of Excellence ‘Asia and Europe’ of which it formed a part, stimulated his thoughts. In his dissertation, now forthcoming as a book, Milinda saw dynasticization, and more broadly monarchization – of existing political systems (such as Indian princely and big landlord regimes) as well as of historiographic narratives and political thinking – as a colonial process: one mediated through deep-rooted political, economic, military, juridical, and discursive interventions. Dynasticization was a tool, in imperial hands, for subjugating vast populations, in India but also often beyond. Milinda further discovered that there were mind-boggling transregional transplantations at work here: the deliberate imposition of Salic Law in colonial north-east India, to take just one quirky example. Indian elites, for their own reasons, had a stake in appropriating these dynasticization strategies, to harness them into their own programmes of building nationalist sovereignties and identities. Further, these Indian nationalists drew upon not only European, but also various Asian, such as Japanese and Iranian, regimes to construct their dynastic models. However, Milinda soon realized that there were also obstructions to this reification of dynasty. Alternate precolonial-origin conceptions of lineage power and political polycentricity often remained obdurately resilient into the 19th and 20th centuries in South Asia, fuelling peasant (and other subaltern) conceptions and insurgencies which challenged, even dismantled, colonial and elite-nationalist projects of state-making. Such challenges were nourished by various democratic-socialist models of governance.

By John Bartholomew and Co., Edinburgh ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Due to his participation in the work of the Jagiellonians project, Ilya Afanasyev had meanwhile come to parallel conclusions. As a project team, we quickly noticed that the very word ‘dynasty’ was rarely used in medieval Europe, and the earliest uses of the word were deployed to refer to Egypt and China. The same was true for various familiar dynastic names that, as Cliff Davies brilliantly showed for ‘the Tudors’, were barely (if at all) used in sources and, instead, often were retrospective historiographical projections. For Ilya, the clearest moment of realisation how confused historians tended to be about dynasty came when he was proof-reading his own article on some twelfth-century hagiographical and historiographical ideas about early Norman dukes and realised how thoughtlessly and uncritically he had been using the words ‘dynasty’ and ‘dynastic’ in his analysis (too bad it was too late to correct that in the article published in Historical Research). For the project team as a whole, the main question originating in the collective realisation that dynasty both as a concept and as an alleged institution was much more problematic than historians had previously assumed seemed to be as follows: if we should not take dynasty for granted, how then to think about the complexity of medieval genealogical notions and discourses, as well as familial practices, in a simultaneously critical but non-reductive way? An attempted answer to this question, focusing on the case of ‘the Jagiellonians’, will be presented in a collective monograph steming from the project entitled Dynasty in the Making: the Jagiellonians, c.1386-1640s, (N. Nowakowska, I. Afanasyev, S. Kuzmova, G. Mickunaite, S. Niiranen & D. Zupka), due to be finished in autumn 2017. However, Ilya also became increasingly interested in another question arising from the same critique of dynasty: if we realise that medieval dynasty is problematic, should not we then ask how we came to associate the concept so strongly with the Middle Ages? What is the modern history of the word as a historiographical and political concept? How is it related to the historic transformations of modern monarchies in the Revolutionary era, to modern nationalist narratives and the rise of history as an academic discipline, to the history of capitalism and bourgeois family? Independently of the arguments about medieval genealogies and familial politics and how to conceptualise them, is not there a fascinating history of ‘dynasty’ as a modern concept projected onto medieval pasts? A history not yet written. Another aspect that has become increasingly clear is that this modern history of ‘dynasty’ can only be global. Ilya therefore was delighted to meet Milinda who was already working within the framework of global intellectual history.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
By Evrard d’Espinques (Original at Bibliothèque nationale de France) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From these two parallel realizations, we converged – a Eureka moment here, from two armchairs face to face on that pleasant spring afternoon – into a provocative ‘realization’, or at least an itchy hypothesis. Could it be that the model of ‘dynasty’ – as a global way of understanding past and present political systems – was an early modern and modern invention? If this were so, what could be the political stake for the globalization of this concept? Admittedly, we were both somewhat suspicious about the elitist focus of many (certainly, not all) dynasty-centric narratives. If we could challenge the (often, borderline-obsessive) focus on dynasties as the motor of political history, could we perhaps contribute to dismantling broader elitist mindsets of narrating our past and present? The responses to our call for papers proved our hunch. From Siam to the Arab world, from China to Mexico, there were many regions in the early modern and modern world where dynasties were deliberately constructed – as political forms and political concepts – from the sixteenth century until now. Dynasty was not a mere background – an obvious ‘presence’ – against which ‘modernity’ emerged. The abstracts of our contributors emboldened our conviction that dynasty – as a globalized model – was in fact a modern conceptual invention. As the date for our conference approaches in September, we see ourselves as vindicated, if still rookie, detectives.

A full programme for The Invention of “Dynasty” can be viewed here. 

If you are interested in attending please register by e-mailing Ilya Afanasyev here.

The organisers are grateful to Past & Present, the Royal Historical Society and the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures for their support in organising the conference.

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. We welcome funding applications from historians of all fields and time periods at any stage in their career. More information can be found here.

Leave a Reply