Thursday, February 23, 2012

Primogeniture (or concentrated inheritance): the making of the modern world

Equal inheritance amongst children has been one of the most destructive patterns in human history.

At it’s simplest level, a farming family may live comfortably and easily support four to six children on something in the order of ten acres. But if that ten acres is divided into four plots of 2.5 acres, it will no longer support a family of six. Nonetheless two surviving children in the next generation are enough to reduce the arable land per family to an acre or so, which is below subsistence for the next generation, particularly if more than one child survives. This situation has driven much of the third world into perpetual poverty, and has had baleful effects in modern countires such as France. (Where the 1792 Revolutionary State’s policy of equal inheritance amongst children has entrenched a peasant farming economy that shocked British Tommies in the Great War, and remains a constant economic and political drain on the economy of the European Union even now). Napoleon dismantled many of the social ‘reforms’ of the revolutionary state, but chose to leave this one intact.

On a larger scale the effects are most easily visualised amongst the great land holders and kings. Charlemagne united much of Europe, including what we now call France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries, under one kingdom. A kingdom that ran reasonably smoothly and remarkably effeciently., and which triggered a minor Renaissance of literacy and government services. Unfortunately that kingdom was soon split between his three grandsons (into roughly France, Germany, and ‘the middle bits’), each of whom had multiple children of their own. Within a few generations the entire system had collapsed back into a hodge-podge of territories constantly in conflict with each other. The Dark Ages returned with a vengeance, as Danes and Norsemen (Vikings) and other marauders gleefully moved in to pick over the remains.

The problem was largely solved in Europe by the introduction of the system of primogeniture, which theoretically implies that the oldest son inherits the families property, and dispenses only minor inheritances for other sons, and sometimes doweries for daughters. (The doweries could be quite substantial of course. When Eleanore of Aquitaine divorced her French husband and took an English one instead, she moved enough of France into Norman/English control to greatly expand a conflict between the two nations that would last for centuries.)

The most recognised explanation of the system is the original folk story of Puss in Boots. The oldest son inherited the mill, the middle son the mules, and the youngest son a cat. The more recognisable version is the medieval truism that the oldest son inherits the estate, the middle son goes into the church (often for those from influential families to become an important abbot or powerful bishop magnate in his own right), and the younger son becomes a military adventurer… (see the vast majority of crusaders and conquistadores).

In terms of great landholders and kings, primogeniture meant that careful managers steadily increased their holdings, and, if careful investors, their wealth. The resulting estates became the foundations of most of the modern nation states of Europe. The French were particularly impressed that a fairly second string noble family called the Capetians, who started as fairly minor nobles, managed to ruthlessly pursue concentrated inheritance to the point of making their family Kings of France, and then France the eventual greatest power in Europe.

[As an aside, it might be interesting to note that traditionally the better great families have invested in the living standards of their communities, and the original great industrial magnates were equally keen to build idealised estates for their workers – though of course that didn’t last for long with the bourgeoise that followed. These families were also the founders of all the great hospitals and universities and charities. But the idealistic imposition of death duties on the ‘rich’ by jealous ‘socialists’ in many coutries stopped that pretty much cold. Only places that do not have death duties, like the United States, have maintained high levels of philanthropy by the great families… from the Rockefellers and Carnegies to the Gates and Buffets.]

What has not proved to be a good thing, is election. The traditional Germanic tribal pattern of electing a replacement King after the death of the previous incumbent led to endless squabbles and feuds between competing families, and almost inevitably led to exactly the drain on resources and defections of provinces that were trying to be avoided. Similarly an overfond father choosing an incompetent or obnoxious favourite son has traditionally led to poor results, not least for the chosen incompetent. (The story of William Rufus being ‘accidentally’ shot on a hunting trip being a pretty clear example.)

The Saxon version of inheritance was half and half. The Witan elected a candidiate, but it had to be one eligible to inherit through the royal line. In the tenth century only 3 out of 8 Saxon kings succeeded their fathers. (For a continuing version of nobles and officials appointed by previous monarchs getting together to elect the next one, see the Papacy.)

But considering the system of primogeniture to be always in favour of the 'eldest son' is still an oversimplification. In fact the orignial Norman version, although it theoretically specified eldest sons, was far more practical. Of the first 9 monarchs of Norman England, only 1 was direct from father to eldest son. William I was succeeded by his third son William II (Rufus), who was succeeded by his brother Henry I, who was succeeded by his nephew Stephen (because his daughter Matilda was considered unfit). Stephen was succeeded by his second cousin Henry II, grandson of Henry I. The seventh Plantagenet (and first eldest son), was Richard I, who was succeeded by his brother John (who was so bad that the nobles crowned a French prince as the next king), before the throne was returned to John’s easily controlled infant son Henry III.

The key therefore is not inheritance by an eldest son, but the principle of concentrated inheritance regardless of who is chosen. In fact for many great families, kingdoms and empires throughout history, the ideal has been to choose the best candidate for inheritance, either from amongst immediate relatives, or by adoption into the family. (A point reinforced by the fact that the only direct primogeniture on the above list led to the dynastically disastrous Richard, who once claimed he would sell London if he could find a buyer.)

Just to emphasise that I am not being entirely Eurocentric here, the Japanese families were masters of concentrated inheritance, as were most of the great imperial dynasty’s of history. (One of the great dynastic mistakes that could be exampled was when Charles V of the Hapsburgs split the Spanish and overseas territories from the Austrian/Italian lands. It might have worked, except that he reflexively gave his favourite son a continental part – his favourite territories of the Netherlands – as a disfucntional annex to the overseas bits, rather than leaving it with his brothers part, the logical Austrian bits that were also in the Holy Roman Empire. The resulting mess sapped both empires fatally.)

Almost every modern nation state established prior to the First World War (and that is still the vast majority of all stable states), has been built on the principle of concentrated inheritance. Even radically Republican ones such as the United States started as assemblies of colonies that evolved under a hereditary monarchy. In fact the only obvious thing uniting the 13 colonies was their relationship with, and eventual opposition to, the English crown. Otherwise it is hard to imagine how such a disparate group could have been brought to combine! Russia, China, Japan, most of the Asian and South American nations, and certainly most of the island groups, can all trace their origins to such an approach.

The post Great War states also have a suprising correlation. Even in Africa and the Middle East, where European powers largely established states by drawing lines on the map, the ‘nations’ established came from what had been accumulated by the colonial powers – usually monarchies or empires – in the first place, and were almost always established as independent on the basis of tribal groups that could be in some way combined under a reasonable facsimile of a monarch with some claim to traditional loyalty through the region. The greatest exceptions were places like Iraq – where the British lumped three unrelated groups forced together by the Turks under a dubious imported royal house – and Liberia, which the Americans created as an imperial exercise for dumped ex slaves in a fit of idealistic romanticism. (And before anyone gets too romantic about Liberia, it, like most other Republics – and in mimicry of its founders – has been subject to dictatorship, multiple civil wars, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.)

Post World War Two, some different conglomorations were attempted… or so it might appear. India was a group of British crown colonies and dependencies – almost all established by monarchies of some sort – combined with the ‘Independent Principalities’ which were also under the hereditary protection of the British Empire… Hmmm. Botswana, the closest thing to a successful Republic of the last century, was pretty much a single tribal group under a hereditary ruling family (who now take turns calling themselves ‘Presidents’).

The curent passion for devolution is interesting. Nations are moving into ‘federations’ – such as the European Union or the more fanciful ‘Arab League’, at the same time that Yugoslavia splits into separate ethnic states, and Scotland mutters about independence from Britain.

They can do this because international stability has reached a point where states don’t need to be big to survive. But the inevitable result of smaller and weaker states is much less capactiy to deal with issues like famine, or collapse of vital industries by reliance on disparate parts of the economy. Too many of the modern states are ‘all our eggs in one basket’ cases (often known quite quickly just as basketcases.) Scotland for instance, will look pretty stupid if it splits from English tax subsidy in the assumption that it can rely on North Sea Oil, only to have the (let’s face it different ethnic group) Shetlands split from Scotland to keep the oil for itself.

Bigger is not always better. The Roman and British (and French and even American) Empires eventually started calving off separate states as soon as they could stand on their own, because that is far more sensible and cost efective than trying to run everything centrally. (And far more likelly to avoid revolts by the colonies who have recognised the problems of over-centralisation and lack of regional control.. did I mention the 13 colonies?) The process is particularly attractive if international stability suggests that independence can be granted to disparate groups without them being immediately conquored by rapacious neighbours. (See the unseemly haste with which post war British taxpayers abandoned only half established states in Africa well before their social development or infrastructure was really ready to stand on its own.)

States need to big big enough to survive and prosper in the context of their period, but flexible enough to ‘calve’ into smaller states if that helps. It is notable that the really big ‘republics’ like the United States and the Soviet Union and China have more trouble with devolution than the monarchies. (The American Civil War being an example at lest comparable with the fall of the Soviet union, and the Chinese attitude to Tibet and Taiwan showing interesting potential.) India was perhaps fortunate that Pakistan and Bangladesh ‘escaped’ a forced union… the conflicts have been bad enough without an American style civil war.

Concentrated inheritance has been the making of successful states, and a stable international system for the modern world. But the counter-balancing principle of devolution of estates to pass on non vital elements to other siblings has also proved useful in allowing states who understand the principles to devolve govrnment. Britain has been the most succesful proponent of this. (A Commonwealth of 54 nations containing a quarter of the world’s area and a third of its population that gets together regularly to play sporting challenges – and sometimes to discipline errant members – is a considerably more impressive achievement than the relative farce we call the United Nations.) But France, and even the United States have managed something similar, although on a much smaller scale. (The independence of the Philippines after 40 years of revolts could be compared to the American War of Independence for instance… certainly a third of the local population was pro, a third anti, and a third disinterested, in each struggle.)

The principles of primogeniture could be said to have had an unequalled effect on the shape of the world we see today.

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