Medieval Dynasties Workshop Report: Organised by Joseph Parsonage and Alistair Davidson
The workshop aimed to question and clarify what ‘dynasty’ means in modern scholarship, and to elucidate its applicability to societies and systems of rulership from across the ancient and medieval world. We wished to answer several questions: what was a ‘dynasty’? What range of meanings did it hold in ancient and medieval thought and how were these exhibited in actual practice? Should it emerge that dynastic thinking is an anachronism or misnomer in modern scholarship, how might we go about replacing it?
A series of papers and discussions were held over the course of two days, attended by senior professors, early career researchers and postgraduate researchers representing numerous disciplines – including western medieval history, early modern history, Byzantine studies, Ottoman studies, classics, archaeology and ancient history. After a keynote lecture from Robert Bartlett (St. Andrews), papers were heard from Ilya Afanasyev (University of Birmingham), Mar Marcos (Universidad de Cantabria), Anthony Kaldellis (Ohio State University), Arezou Azad (University of Birmingham), Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University), Roberta Cimino (University of Nottingham), Christopher Wright (Royal Holloway), and Christopher Markiewicz (University of Birmingham), and sessions were chaired by Joao Vicente Publio Dias (Johannes Gutenburg University, Mainz), Ruth Macrides, Claus Jurman, Francisco Lopez-Santos Kornberger, Annika Asp, and Alistair Davidson (all University of Birmingham). On the first day attendees were able to take part in a coin handling session hosted by Maria Vrij at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, in which were showcased a number of examples of coins from the Barber’s collection, selected on the basis of ‘dynastic iconography’.
Funding was provided by the University of Birmingham Postgraduate Researcher Fund, the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Birmingham International Excellence Fund, for all of which the organisers are grateful and offer their thanks to the respective funding bodies.
Feedback was universally positive, this is true. The negative had to do with food, not the intellectual or organisational aspects. Attendees praised the interdisciplinary choice of papers, the idea of debating the issue of dynasty across time and region, and the choice of devoting longer sessions to questions and discussions to fully debate the issues at stake.
A number of conclusions were established by the end of the workshop, with a consensual agreement from the speakers. The main result is that ‘dynasty’ is an acceptable term and concept for historians to use. It is a historical fact that power and office are established, preserved and transmitted by rulers through familial means, and the dynastic concept explains this, and ‘dynasty’ as a concept is arguably not causing any damage to the historical discourse. Caveats were raised however, with speakers voicing concerns that dynasty conflates the notions of family and office, and that by artificially ordering world history, dynasty obscures historical continuity and historical ruptures which are less visible to the historian. The importance of women to dynasty is also a major conclusion of the workshop, as nearly every paper separately debunked the idea of dynasty purely being a matter of patrilineal descent, and instead focussed on the contemporary view of women as agents and kingmakers, as well as the role of adoption and usurpation.