Choosing the null set

April 2, 2013 at 7:53 am

| Gabriel |

A few months ago I listened to an interview with a historian who had studied “bride shows” in Czarist Russia. If you’re familiar with the Book of Esther (or its holiday, Purim) you’re familiar with the idea — a monarch holds a beauty contest to find a wife. This seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but if you’ve studied history (or watched Game of Thrones) you know that typically royalty marry in order to cement political alliances. So why would the czar (or the shah) choose a commoner to marry? The answer is not that the king is actually trying to find the biggest hottie in the kingdom, but a political logic, in that the monarch does not wish to form an alliance with any of the domestic or foreign noble houses. If you’re at the apex of a power structure, forming an edge mostly serves to bring the other party up to your level and this could undermine efforts to horde power for yourself (or more likely, for your clan or faction). This seems to be a common practice where the polity is relatively isolated from neighboring polities (e.g., Russia, Egypt, Hawaii) and so marriage would in effect involve elevating a client rather than allying with a rival. In such situations the strategic choice is to choose “none of the above.”

It seems like there are really three ways to go about this:

1. Do not form a tie at all. That is, celibacy. This was the strategy exercised by Queen Elizabeth I.

2. Loops. That is, royal incest. This was the strategy practiced by most Egyptian dynasties right through the Ptolemies.

3. Form a tie with a socially irrelevant person. Here we have the bride show strategy. You form a tie, but do so with someone of low enough status that obviously they’re not a player.

Note that some apparent instances of strategies 1 and 2 might actually be strategy 3. On page 95 of Social Structures, JLM describes how strategy 1 was actually strategy 3 in Renaissance Florence:

But given that Florentine sons had to marry up, those of the most distinguished lineages were hard pressed to marry— there was no one good enough for the sons of the elite to marry. In this case, there was no elegant structural solution, but rather a cheat: the elite, argue Padgett and Ansell, snuck away to other neighborhoods to find women as opposed to effectively announcing to their neighbors that there was a family of higher status than themselves.

Likewise, powerful “celibate” clergy from Alexander VI to Marcial Maciel have formed ties to socially irrelevant people but framed it as celibacy by having children with mistresses. I’m not aware of explicit references to this, but I like to imagine that some royal incest marriages were sexless and the heir was actually produced by a concubine, which would be socially irrelevant marriage framed as a loop. You can even find cases where celibacy is framed as a socially irrelevant marriage, as with women who are married off to a god or inanimate object.

Also note that sometimes “strategies” could be imposed on people, as with celibacy imposed on rival succession claimants (eg, the mythological Greek princess Danae and her Roman doublet Rhea Silvia or the dozen or so very historical deposed Byzantine emperors forced into monastic orders).

You also see this sort of thing in non-marital contexts. Most famously, during the principate senators resented the emperors because the emperors relied heavily on freedmen and knights to staff the Roman imperial bureaucracy, such relatively lowly people being less likely than senators to use such positions to build rival power bases (or to extract usurious rents). We see a similar practice more recently with the kings of Ethiopia, who for centuries would request a bishop be sent down from Alexandria, the purpose of which was not so much to cement ties to Egypt as to refrain from investing ecclesiastical power in any of the local notables, a foreigner bishop being the next best thing to no bishop at all, politically speaking.

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