During one of Tywin’s war counsels at Harrenhal, back when Arya was Tywin’s cupbearer1 , Tywin discovers, much to his fury, that Amory Lorch inadvertently sends a letter detailing the Lannister’s infantry movements to Lord Marlin of House Dormund instead of Lord Damon of House Marbrand. The following exchange occurs:
“Girl, fetch me the Histories of the Greater and Lesser Houses.” – Tywin
When Arya immediately retrieves the correct book, Tywin scoffs, “My cupbearer can read better than you.”
Tywin flips open the book, points to a chart, and demands, “To whom does House Dormand owe allegiance?”
The man sputters, “My Lord, I—“
“To the Starks of Winterfell! Who have 20,000 men and my son!”
“I judged you might be good for something more than brutalizing peasants. I see I overestimated you.”
A while back, “Brandon” asked me if I could write a post about heraldry and genealogy. I’m still working on the second part of the “Winter…” post, but I stumbled across some information today about genealogy so I thought I’d write a bit about it now and more later.
Game of Thrones touches on the medieval obsession with genealogy as part of its world building. Genealogy is part of the background, like in the exchange above, when Tywin points to a book about the histories of the dynasties of Westeros. Presumably such a book would contain not just family histories but also their family trees.
Nearly all books in the Middle Ages, and presumably Westeros, were semi-custom. They weren’t mass-produced like they are today in the world of printing presses. This means that Tywin or his ancestors would probably have commissioned the histories book for him. It’s significant that Tywin brought a book about the history of houses with him on a military campaign. Although Tywin would have much of the information in such a book memorized, identifying the badges, crests, and insignia of other noble families and knowing to whom they owed allegiance would be important on the battlefield. You don’t want to accidentally kill a soldier whose house is a vassal to one of your allies!
In the late Middle Ages, people in all levels of society were obsessed with genealogy . People used genealogy for everything from establishing the basis of their right to land to (if they were not freemen) clarifying which lord they owed service.
Kings would use genealogy to bolster dubious claims to throne. Henry VII liked to claim descent from the mythic King Arthur to bolster his weak and dubious claim. Lancastrians liked to emphasize their connections with nobles to help make their claim to the throne sound better after Henry Bolingbroke usurped it from the house of York in 1399.
At the most basic level, genealogy had a practical, financial purpose. To put it in simple modern terms, tracking genealogy was a medieval form of what is known today, at least in America, as “title insurance.” Without any form of land registration system, understanding genealogy was the “essential basis of property ownership.”2. In the late middle ages, the basis of wealth for the nobility was land – from which they collected rents and sometimes feudal obligations for service. The only way they could prove their claim to land was through the memories of friends and neighbors. If a person purchased land from somebody who did not have a clear, undisputed claim, the buyer could wind up in litigation for years.
For Tywin, his legacy is the most important concern. But, what is a legacy? Tywin describes it as “what you pass down to your children and your children’s children – it’s what remains of you when you’re gone.”3 So too was it in the middle ages when people were willing to go to war and die to preserve their inheritances. JR Lander writes, “The preservation of the family inheritance, the ‘lifelode’, was a sacred duty, the very strongest of contemporary sentiments, one might say, and its basis was a sound and detailed grasp of genealogy.”4
Legacy was most important thing to the medieval nobles. To preserve their legacy and ensure their title continued to exist for future generations, they had to keep their land (and wealth) together. Because the nobility started as a way to administer justice and maintain order in areas beyond the king’s immediate reach, medieval nobles believed that family titles should pass to a son. That is, they should pass to one person strong enough to defend their legacy by force. Nobles saw splitting family titles and estates as a huge mistake because with every generation the family legacy – that is, their wealth and grandeur – would become more and more diluted.
To prevent this from happening, some families entailed their estates on a male heir. That is, if the current titleholder did not have a son, the title and associated lands passed to the closest male relative (e.g., a cousin or something). When estates were entailed, the lord didn’t own the estates per se they were custodians of them for the next generation. For those that watch Downton Abbey, an entail is the reason the estates were to pass to Matthew Crawley. (Admittedly, I can’t do this topic justice, but here is a blog post that does if you are curious.) Because people could inherit from multiple relations, a male heir might inherit multiple titles from all different lines of his family during his lifetime.
In terms of drawing up family trees and documenting lineage, historian Michael Hicks writes the following: “Aristocrats maximized their antecedents, stressed the antiquity of their lines, rejoiced in past glories, minimized disasters and extolled noble and royal connections. Costly royal genealogies were repeatedly customized to intertwine the royally connected families that had commissioned them. Parvenus like the Pastons invented noble forebears. Even magnates extended their pedigrees back first to the Norman Conquest and then beyond.”5
Genealogy also mattered when families considered whom their children would wed. As discussed in other posts, the fifteenth century nobility generally married each other through arranged marriage pacts, or “lets join our houses” as Robert Baratheon said to Ned Stark in front of his sister’s crypt. Nobles considered how land would devolve upon the couple when they arranged marriages for their children. Ideally, they would choose partners for their children who would inherit land that was beside their land to form a larger territory. Michael Hicks writes, “Not only did the potential for inheritance form many a marriage, but careful track was kept of properties yet to fall in, and of claims, hitherto disappointed, and yet to be realized.”6 As Hicks notes, the greatest most powerful families were the ones who not only managed to preserve their land and wealth for generations, but also increase it.
Because there were only a limited number of nobles, everyone ended up being married to their cousins – first, second, third, or more. To marry a cousin legally, however, required permission from the pope (“papal dispensation”): something only wealthy people, such as nobles, could afford. In some cases, the couple was so intertwined they required multiple dispensations. (In fact, historian Michael Hicks argues that King Richard III wasn’t legally married to Queen Anne Neville because they didn’t secure enough of the correct papal dispensations.) At any rate, because all the nobility was so interrelated, they needed to understand genealogy to know when they needed to apply for a dispensation.
Lastly, genealogy also mattered because in a strictly hierarchical society who you were and what rank you possessed mattered. Those in the upper nobility were acutely aware of genealogy because they cared about their proximity to the throne. The best thing that could happen is one of their offspring might marry somebody with a claim to the throne and someday one of their grandchildren might sit upon the throne. During the Wars of the Roses, this was Warwick the Kingmaker’s ambition. During the 1450s, Suffolk married his son to Margaret Beaufort, whom before Henry VI had sons, many believed had the strongest claim. Suffolk’s enemies twisted this act and claimed he was attempting to place his son on the throne. The result was Suffolk was exiled from England and had his head chopped off on a beach en route to Calais.
England recognized heredity through the male and female line, which meant that who inherited the throne wasn’t as straightforward as we’d think. This is part of the whole “game of thrones” that was going on from 1399 onward. But, that’s a whole other topic and something for another post.
By Jamie Adair