The Modern Invention of Dynasty: A Global Intellectual History, 1500-2000

University of Birmingham
Arts and Law, International, Lectures Talks and Workshops, Research
Thursday 21st (09:00) - Saturday 23rd September 2017 (18:00)
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Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures

What is dynasty? Historians rarely ask this question. It is automatically assumed that the word corresponds to some real institution(s) that played an extremely important role in pre-modern politics. At this conference, we intend to overturn this uncritical assumption, and, instead, interrogate ‘dynasty’ as a modern conceptual construct, which has been projected onto both the past and the present. 

The conference is inspired by the publications of late Cliff Davies, the ongoing work on the Jagiellonians Project at Oxford, as well as the ‘Nationising the Dynasty’ project at Heidelberg. These researches have shown that the Latin word dynastia was rarely used in the Middle Ages and was infrequently deployed even in sixteenth century Europe, while, in many other regions of the world too, including in South Asia, the construction of the concept of ‘dynasty’ was, in part, the result of modern interventions. Terms which were used to articulate genealogical and familial identity in premodern societies often do not necessarily map well on to the modern historiographical concept of ‘dynasty’. Collective ‘dynastic’ names, such as ‘the Tudors’, ‘the Plantagenets’ or ‘the Jagiellonians’ were late or retrospective inventions, rarely, if at all, mentioned in contemporary sources. If ‘dynasty’ and ‘dynastic’ identity are so difficult to locate in medieval and early modern sources, this begs a question: how has ‘dynasty’ become one of the key concepts for narrating and explaining pre-modern political history, as well as for defining modern monarchical regimes?

In existing scholarship on intellectual history, particularly those emanating from Anglophone and German scholarly worlds, concepts such as ‘kingship’ or ‘sovereignty’ have received detailed attention, but not the related notion of ‘dynasty’. We hope to address this scholarly gap, while also engaging with the newly emergent field of global intellectual history. We believe that the modern construction of ‘dynasty’ as an encompassing concept can be understood only in resolutely transborder, transcontinental, or even global terms. It was the result of reflections by actors not only about polities in one’s own region, but also about other polities, including spatially or temporally distant ones. The increasing interconnectedness of the early modern and modern world resulted in growing European awareness about political regimes in other societies, while extra-European actors often hybridized (and thereby radically transformed) their regional political categories by bringing them into dialogue with European political vocabulary. Imperial encounters often lay at the heart of such ‘transcultural’ exchanges, leading ultimately, by the nineteenth century, to the crystallization of ‘dynasty’ as a globalized category of historical narration.

We are delighted to announce that keynote lectures at the conference will be delivered by Julia Adams (Yale), Pamela Crossley (Dartmouth College), Faisal Devji (Oxford), and Richard Wortman (Columbia).

Registrations for this event will open in August 2017. For further information please email