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Book Review


Jeroen Duindam, Dynasties: A Global History of Power, 1300-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xx + 384. Glossary, Bibliography, and Index. $28.99 (paper).


     Looking back, we tend to assume that dynastic governance was simple and relatively uniform: kings, emperors, caliphs, and the like made absolute decisions about their people and territories. Jeroen Duindam's Dynasties: A Global History of Power, 1300-1800, however, paints a very different picture. In ideals, succession, staffing, management, rewards, pageantry, and more, Duindam's book documents a dizzying array of political solutions to various dynastic problems. He describes many forms of kingship, various contributions made by female elites, wide ranging forms of succession, diverse bureaucratic machinations, and different ways that rulers connected with their subjects. The past is never as simple as it seems.

     And yet, Dynasties reminds us that the past is understandable. Duindam takes a scattered and massive assortment of facts about governance in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas and organizes it into a valuable comparative framework. In his words, Duindam examines the "social patterns around dynastic rulers at four levels, beginning with and moving outward from the figure in the centre: ruler, dynasty, court, and realm" (4). Viewing these levels as "concentric circles around the ruler" helps us to see historical change and continuity beyond the usual autocratic suspects. He shows us that dynasties were not in fact just all about rulers; they were all about relationships.

     The book begins with the relationships between rulers, ideals, and ideal makers. In the first chapter, "Rulers: position versus person," Duindam foregrounds the tension that comes with trying to fit human beings into abstract models. Ideal kingship was very different in European, Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist, Confucian, West African, and Central-South American societies. But it also shared some common underlying features across these cultures. Whatever the specific societal ideal, rulers everywhere were expected to maintain order on earth and a connection to heaven. Fulfilling these mandates was complicated by the differing capacities and personalities of kings, the human life-cycle, and various specific political realities. How could a non-academic Chinese ruler, for instance, ever reach the Confucian ideal? What was the proper way to train those who ascended to the throne at a young age? And when could they be trusted to take the reins? How did monarchs deal with power later in life? And what about the complex problems that didn't have any self-evident and morally clear solutions? Each specific context generated different answers to these questions, but all within a similar framework. Dynastic ideals were, as Duindam explains, "unattainable and inconsistent," and yet they were also "an instrument" designed to "limit the damage [a bad king] could bring about" (57).

     In chapter two, "Dynasty: reproduction and succession," Duindam moves out from the center to explore royal family relationships. The most pressing concern for these families was succession. Many assume that primogeniture was the universal solution. But again, it wasn't that simple. The issues around producing eligible heirs, selecting the right one, and then dealing with those who would not ascend to the throne generated a wide range of succession patterns; and when those patterns failed or were overruled, royal families broadened the possible boundaries for eligible succession even further. In this chapter, Duindam masterfully explores the implications of matriarchal versus patriarchal systems of dynastic progression, the role of various "king makers" in the process, and how rivalry among brothers and extended family members often led to cycles of violent competition. The most impressive part of this chapter, however, is the way that Duindam places women front and center. He provides here an extensive comparative analysis of female rulers and a close look at why concubinage was almost universally present in non-European dynasties. Powerful families did, indeed, define dynasties, but they were also redefined by them in return.

     In chapter three, "At court: spaces, groups, balances," Duindam teases out broad similarities from the minutia of diverse court cultures. He pushes us to think about dynastic bureaucracies in new ways, including the mobility of various royal courts; and he points out the common practice of having both inner and outer courts, though the lines separating these two spaces differed from one place to the next. Most interestingly, he summarizes three ways that courts were understood everywhere, as either temples, cages, or arenas—places where elites were venerated, trapped, pitted against one another, or sometimes all of the above. As the precursor to modern political cabinets, Duindam's analysis of court cultures complicates the idea of absolute royal agency. Depending on the circumstances, a venerated ruler's religious obligations might keep him far from the daily concerns of governance, or a king might be tightly controlled by a strong group of bureaucrats, or governance might be more of a competition between ministers for royal approval. These complications were often smoothed out in retrospect, making it difficult for historians to see past the image of absolute rule. This often means that we cannot now be certain about the whos and whys of most dynastic decisions. Nevertheless by mapping out a wide range of possibilities, Duindam expands the general view of central players in dynastic governance.

     Finally, in chapter four, "Realm: connections and interactions," the book explores various ways that dynastic rulers projected power beyond their controlled courts. Once again, Duindam creates a coherent order out of a vast assortment of examples. How rulers forged and maintained bonds of loyalty with their clients, for instance, might be considered along a spectrum of what he labels "virtue, honor, or fear," or perhaps these relationships were regulated by some combination of rank advancements and other concrete rewards. Duindam then describes the associations between pageantry, power, and popular culture. This chapter provides a strong argument for the importance of royal networks of authority while also explaining how those networks were created, maintained, and made to penetrate the everyday life of people. The chapter also brings us full circle to kingship ideals by examining subjects' perceptions of faraway rulers and of what they could and should be.

     Serious students of history will, no doubt, recognize many of the patterns described by Duindam from their own studies, while less experienced readers are likely to get lost in the vastness of the information. Specialists will certainly turn to Diundam's expertise in their research and to prepare for classes; graduate students will grapple with and challenge his conclusions; journalists should work to popularize his perspective; and the book, or parts of it at least, would be useful for focused upper division undergraduate courses. Wherever a person my fall on this spectrum, the comprehensive coverage given by the author to every facet of dynastic governance will hopefully expand the way that we think about dynasties for a long time to come.

     The networks that established dynasties and kept them going have long been obscured behind simplistic notions of "absolute" monarchy, notions first popularized by royal propaganda and later reinforced by Enlightenment opposition. Duindam, however, looks past these assumptions to show us the up close complexities of dynasties; and in the end, one cannot help but conclude that premodern dynasties, like modern democracies, were more a series of variations on a common theme than they were a uniform system of government. They were about complex and far reaching relationships, not just individual rulers. 

Ethan Hawkley specializes in Asian and world history and is an Assistant Professor of History at Wesley College. You can reach him at


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