Dynastic Centres in Europe and Asia: A Layout for Comparison
In this paper, I seek to prepare the way for a comparative analysis of dynastic centres in Europe and Asia. This is a timely challenge, following trends in European historiography stressing the persistence of household structures and ritual at the heart of the early modern state, as well as recent detailed studies of Asian courts. Clearly patterns varied greatly, but the divergences should not be fitted unthinkingly into a grand narrative based on the ‘rise of the west’. Among the issues equally relevant for courts in Europe and Asia, I privilege two. In the first place, all rulers needed loyal agents, yet could not easily guarantee their loyalty over time. Agents in the long run tend to become vested interest groups, standing in the way of the ruler’s personal power. The court was a main theatre where this tension could be solved or exacerbated. In the second place the dynastic centre with its redistributive function and its calendar of rituals could offer a point of orientation for regional elites not otherwise connected, hence bringing cohesion to loosely governed multi-ethnic empires or composite monarchies. After considering comparative strategies and problems related to scope, as well as obstacles created by languages and sources, I elaborate in some detail four foci for research: 1) the ruler himself (or more rarely herself); 2) the dynasty, succession, reproduction (evidently including women as well as siblings); 3) the status, composition, and tasks of the groups serving the ruler; and finally 4) the connections of this grouping with its wider social environment. It is my contention that in each of these four subsequent concentric circles we can define a series of questions relevant for all dynastic centres, notwith¬standing huge cultural differences separating civilizations, regions, and periods. Using diachronic and synchronic approaches to study a focused theme, I hope to reach a level of comparative precision that goes beyond open generalized statements while retaining analytical precision and proximity to sources. This can only be structured as a joint effort, the outlines of which are suggested here.
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